Thanksgiving Leftovers, Part of the Tradition

Adair Hoover,
Home & Garden Information Center

On Thanksgiving Day FOOD is the focus. There is food galore and then some left over. Making the most of Thanksgiving leftovers is practically an American tradition on its own. Practicing safe food handling of leftovers is just as important as the main meal preparations and requires planning and good practices. The following guidelines will help you maximize your leftovers for post-Thanksgiving meals and snacks.

  • Don’t allow food to stand at room temperature for more than two hours. This can be especially hard to do on Thanksgiving Day but is essential for safety and quality. Foodborne pathogens can multiply quickly in the temperature danger zone (40 °F - 140 °F), and bacteria can easily double every 20 minutes in food that is held at room temperature.
  • Prepare your refrigerator in advance.  Clear out as much food as possible in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Have an appliance thermometer in your refrigerator so that you can accurately monitor the temperature and confirm that it is consistently maintained at 40°F or below. It is also smart to lower the refrigerator temperature to between 34 °F and 36 °F on Thanksgiving morning. This will help to compensate for frequent opening and closing.
  • Cool down hot foods before refrigerating. Hot foods should be cooled down and transferred to shallow dishes before refrigeration.  If you have a particularly large pot of hot food, speed up the cool down process by placing the pot in an ice water bath before you transfer to shallow containers.  
  • Don’t overload the refrigerator. Refrigerators are most efficient when there is space for cold air to circulate throughout. Over packing can affect quality and safety of cold foods.
  • Plan to eat leftovers within four days.
  • Freeze any items that you don’t think you will be able to use within four days. Frozen foods stay safe indefinitely when the temperature is maintained below 0 °F. However, quality will decline over time. For storage guidelines go to: HGIC 3522 Food Storage: Refrigerator & Freezer
  • Reheat food properly. When reheating foods, bring sauces, soups and gravies to a rolling boil. Solid foods should be reheated to 165 °F. Foods reheated in the oven should be cooked above 325 °F.

Follow these leftover guidelines, and you will be able to safely feast for days!

Page maintained by: Home & Garden Information Center

This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.