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Tips for Thanksgiving dinner storage after the main event

thanksgiving-leftover-storage
Photo credit: JodiJacobson/Getty Images

You can already visualize the post-dinner Thanksgiving day scenario: you and your guests are immobilized by the power of the food you have just enjoyed, everyone claims they couldn’t eat another bite, yet somehow your table and counters are still covered with food. Is this some evil magic? Do the dishes magically replenish themselves? What do How are you going to handle all the necessary Thanksgiving dinner storage that is piling up?

No, this is not some spell placed on you by ghosts of turkeys past. This is what inevitably happens each year when cooks across America prepare far more food than any normal gathering of dinner guests could ever even come close to consuming. Your next thought: what do I do with all of these leftovers?

MORE: Turn Thanksgiving leftovers into a mouthwatering barbecue turkey sandwich

Thanksgiving day leftovers are by far some of the best leftovers to be had. When you are once again able to grasp the notion of needing to eat again, turkey sandwiches and soups, leftover dressing and a bit more mashed potatoes and gravy are sure to hit the spot. No doubt, many of your dinner guests would love to relieve you of your extra food. Much of it can also be frozen for a Thanksgiving dinner replay in the near future. Let’s take a look at the recommended ways to send leftovers home with your guests and to safely refrigerate or freeze the rest.

Before we begin, remember that the USDA recommends food not be left out of refrigeration for more than two hours, and only one hour if it will be 90 degrees or warmer where you are. Between 40F and 140F, also known as the “Danger Zone”, bacteria grow rapidly in food — and can double in just 20 minutes. Two hours to pack up all your leftovers seems reasonable until you really stop to think about how long the food sits out before dinner begins, during and after while waiting for that second burst of energy to beginning clean-up.

MORE: Leftover turkey? Here are 9 easy ways to make delicious new meals from your Thanksgiving dinner leftovers

Unless you don’t t expect to have leftovers (what?!), plan ahead and have clean, resealable containers ready to go. Leftovers can quickly be placed in these containers and kept in the refrigerator during coffee and dessert. Then, you can begin the task of dividing up the leftovers and either sending them with guests or repackaging for the fridge or freezer. This extra step is worth it to avoid possible food poisoning from bacteria.

thanksgiving-leftovers-storage
Photo credit: DebbiSmirnoff/Getty Images

To Freeze or Not to Freeze

Some foods perform decidedly better than others when frozen for future use or kept in the fridge to eat within a few days. To begin with, refreezing what was already once frozen is not recommended. For example, if you made gravy a few days before Thanksgiving, froze it, and then defrosted it for dinner, it should not be refrozen.

Never take food directly from the table to the freezer. It should be placed in the refrigerator for several hours or even overnight to ensure it is completely cooled through. Placing food into the freezer while any part is still warm creates a breeding ground for bacteria that can and will survive while frozen — and thus creates the risk of food poisoning when eventually thawed and eaten.

There are many ways to store and freeze food and how you choose largely depends on how much room you have in your freezer and how you want to reheat it later. All food should be stored in the smallest possible container to prevent freezer burn and save space. All containers should also be airtight. If you want to remove it from the freezer, thaw and reheat it all in the same dish, then you should use small glass containers. Plastic containers with airtight lids work just as well but the food will need to be placed in a different container before reheating. If lack of space is an issue, most foods can be wrapped in foil or plastic wrap and then sealed tightly in a resealable plastic bag. Even liquids (chicken broth, gravy) can be frozen in airtight bags.

Be sure to label your bags and containers before freezing as frozen food can sometimes be difficult to identify.

Freeze

  • Turkey: Remove all meat from the bones first.
  • Mashed potatoes: If your recipe included fat like butter or cream they will hold up well. Recipes using only broth will not do as well.
  • Gravy: Flour-based gravy can store well for up to four months, but cream or milk-based gravies will separate when thawed.
  • Cranberry sauce: Fresh or canned can be frozen.
  • Stuffing: Yes, but it just may be a little mushy when thawed.
  • Pumpkin, sweet potato, or squash dishes: Best if pureed first.
  • Bread/rolls: Separate individually, wrap in foil and freeze in airtight bags.
  • Pies: Fruit pies freeze well for up to four months. Pies with eggs in the filling (pecan, pumpkin) freeze for up to two months but will not be quite as good when thawed. Warning: the crust will not be as crispy and delicious no matter what kind of pie it is. If you can, just eat the pies!
  • Green beans (not green bean casserole): Wrapped tightly and stored in airtight bag.

Do Not Freeze

  • Pies: Best not to. Custard, cream, chiffon or mousse as the fillings will separate into a goopy mess.
  • Salads: No. Just no.
  • Green bean casserole: The creamy ingredients and crunchy topping make this a no.
  • “Healthy” mashed potatoes (without a butter or cream fat): Uh-uh. Why would you do this anyway?

Refrigerator Storage Time

If you know you’ll eat the leftovers (turkey sandwich, turkey soup and so on.), store them in the refrigerator. However, it’s helpful to to understand just how long each type of leftover can be kept and still be safe to eat.

First, your refrigerator that should always be kept at 40F or below.

Next, store food in best fitting, airtight containers. Glass is easy to stack, microwaveable and environmentally friendly. If using plastic, be sure it is labeled BPA-free; BPA is a chemical used in plastics that has been linked to health issues.

Even if you do use BPA-free containers, be aware of the possible transfer of plastic from the containers into our food when using any plastic container. This is known as “leaching” or “migration.” The amount of plastic transferred to the food during storage is extremely small, but increases when the plastic container is heated. This is why we recommend that you transfer food to a glass or ceramic container before reheating.

Another option for sending home leftovers are one-time use aluminum containers. They are relatively inexpensive and can be recycled.

Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Time Recommendations

Food Fridge Freezer
Turkey 3-4 days 2-3 months
Cooked Meat (ham, beef) 3-4 days 2-3 months
Gravy 1-2 days 2-3 months
Cranberry Sauce 10-14 days 1-2 months
Cooked Stuffing 3-4 days 1 month
Mashed potatoes, yams 3-5 days 10-12 months
Soup 2-3 days 4-6 months
Cooked Vegetables 3-4 days 2-3 months
Pumpkin Pie 3-4 days 1-2 months

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