Chow Line: Storing small holiday meals safely

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Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we plan to host only our immediate family for Thanksgiving this year, but I still anticipate having leftovers. How long after Thursday can we safely eat the leftovers?

As COVID-19 safety restrictions tighten across the country, many families are changing their usual Thanksgiving plans, with many planning to put precautions in place at holiday gatherings such as social distancing and asking those with COVID-19 symptoms not to attend, according to a nationwide survey from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

The survey found that 79% of respondents say they plan to celebrate only with household members, 73% plan to follow social distancing measures, 67% plan to wear masks, and 62% plan to celebrate with no more than 10 people in their homes.

And even though more people are opting for smaller turkeys this year, according to the National Turkey Federation, leftovers are still likely to be plentiful this year. With that in mind, it’s important to know how long is too long to eat turkey leftovers.

You’ll be happy to know that if you store your leftover turkey in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking, you can eat the leftovers for up to four days, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These short-but-safe limits will also keep refrigerated foods from spoiling.

However, it’s important to note that the recommended refrigerated storage time for different foods can vary by food type, but in general, the refrigerated storage time is quite short, according to Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“After four days of refrigeration, the risk of foodborne illness-causing bacteria growing on leftovers increases,” Ilic said in a previous Chow Line. “And because pathogen bacteria typically doesn’t change the taste, smell, or look of food, you can’t tell whether leftovers are safe to eat.”

For turkey storage, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends that you remove the turkey from the bone, slice it into smaller pieces, and store it in small containers if you plan to eat it within four days. If you want to store the turkey longer, you should pack it into freezer bags or other airtight containers and place it in the freezer. While the taste and texture of the frozen meat will decline after about four months, turkey that is correctly prepped for frozen storage is safe to eat indefinitely, the UDSA says.

For the other leftover foods, you should cover and wrap them in airtight packaging, or seal them in storage containers for storage in the refrigerator. This helps to keep bacteria out, retain moisture, and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator, the USDA says. Taking care to store leftovers correctly can help you avoid getting a bad case of foodborne illness.

“Remember that cooked foods have to be kept out of the temperature danger zone (40 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit),” Ilic has said. “Turkey, like other cooked foods, should be kept warm (135 degrees Fahrenheit.)”

“Turkey can only be at room temperature for two hours. After that, it should be refrigerated.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Clostridium perfringens is one of the bacteria that can grow in cooked foods that are left at room temperature for too long after cooking. It also produces toxins that cannot be inactivated by reheating the foods.

In fact, C. perfringens is the second most common bacteria that causes foodborne infections. As many as one million individuals are affected by C. perfringens each year, according to the CDC. Perfringens food poisoning symptoms include severe abdominal cramps and pain, diarrhea, and flatulence within six to 24 hours after eating foods that contain high numbers of bacterial cells.

Another interesting fact: C. perfringens outbreaks occur most often in November and December, with many of the outbreaks linked to turkey and roast beef, according to the CDC.

Here are some other tips from the USDA regarding leftovers:

  • Keep leftovers in a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs if the food is traveling home with a guest who lives more than two hours away.
  • Store stuffing separately from leftover turkey. Remove the stuffing from the turkey, and refrigerate the stuffing and the meat separately.
  • When reheating cooked foods, be sure to use a food thermometer to make sure they have been heated to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lastly, whether those leftovers are served as turkey casserole, turkey soup, turkey pot pie, turkey salad, turkey quesadillas, or turkey tetrazzini, remember to keep food safety in mind so that you can do without developing a bout of food poisoning.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was originally reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist, Ohio State University Extension.

Tracy Turner
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Sanja Ilic