Safeguard Your Thanksgiving Leftovers

To keep your food fresh and your stomach happy, be sure to follow the 2-2-4 formula for reusing leftovers

By Star Lawrence
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

They used to say that Chicago stockyard workers used "everything but the squeal." If you use everything but the gobble, you need to remember several important rules to make sure that table full of lukewarm, breathed-on food is safe to eat later.

William Stallings, MS, RD, clinical dietitian at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, says to remember the "2-2-4" formula. This means:

  • 2 hours. Store all leftovers in the refrigerator or freeze no more than two hours after cooking. If food has been out more than two hours, toss it.

  • 2 inches. Use shallow containers, about two inches deep, to store food. This will allow it to cool quickly and evenly, foiling pesky bacteria.

  • 4 days. Eat leftovers within four days. Holiday food kept longer than that should be thrown out. Freeze anything that is not going to be used within four days.

It also is important to keep the fridge at 34 to 40 degrees at all times. Don't forget, while preparing the feast, you probably opened it a lot. The setting may need to be lowered a little at least temporarily.

It is also important during prep time, Stallings tells WebMD, to wash your hands frequently and avoid preparing raw meat on a porous surface, such as a wooden cutting board, that might soak up contaminated juices and transfer them to other foods.

Some Foods Keep Better Than Others

Constance Garrett, RD, MS, MA, nutrition and family consumer science adviser at the University of California Cooperative in San Bernardino, tells WebMD that stuffing doesn't keep well. At the very least, it should be removed from the turkey cavity if some of it was placed there. While inside, the dressing may flavor the turkey -- and be flavored by it -- but it might not get hot enough to thoroughly scourge harmful bacteria.

These days, many people put an onion and herbs inside the turkey and prepare the dressing in a separate pan as a side dish.

Stallings says it's OK to cook the stuffing inside, though, if you use a meat thermometer and make sure the stuffing reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

"People also put a lot of delicate stuff in mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving," Garrett says. "They can be risky to keep unrefrigerated."

Sweet potatoes, however, contain sugar and are also prepared using sugary ingredients (such as those excellent little marshmallows). "Sugar," Garrett notes, "acts as something of a preservative."

What about that creamy greenbean/onion ring casserole? "It only contains three-fourths of a cup of milk," Garrett says, "so it keeps fairly well."

She also recommends that some dishes be prepared ahead, frozen or refrigerated, and then microwaved, giving you another shot at zapping harmful bugs. "This keeps the food safe a little longer."

Great Variations on a Theme

For some people, the "day after" (or, let's face it, the "snack two hours after") is more anticipated than the main meal itself. One man I know prepares a turkey breast at home if he is eating at someone else's house. That way, his right to turkey sandwiches is preserved when he returns. His secret? Homemade Russian dressing, combining mayo, ketchup, sweet pickle relish, and salt and pepper.


"People can't say they are tired of turkey if they can't recognize it!"

Another woman makes a Thanksgiving dinner sandwich, layering on not only turkey, but adding some dressing, cranberry sauce, even potatoes, to create a Dagwood.

Turkey soup is also a classic. Lois Carlson Willand is author of The Use-It-Up Cookbook: A Guide to Minimizing Food Waste. She tells WebMD that it's best to divide all your turkey into white, dark, and drumsticks as soon as people leave the table. If you aren't making soup the next day, freeze the denuded carcass.

When you have time, put the carcass in a big pot and cover with water. Then add carrots, celery, onions, allspice, salt, pepper, even turkey skin for flavor. If you want more intensity, add some low-fat, low-salt chicken broth from a can. Cook at a low simmer for an hour to an hour and a half. Then save the broth in tightly lidded jars ("I love those glass jars peanut butter used to come in," Willand exclaims.)

When the time comes to make the soup, combine the broth with turkey pieces, rice or noodles, and any veggies you have around. "I resist getting highfalutin ingredients," she says.

Willand also makes a mean creamed turkey. Saute 1/4 cup of onion in 2 tablespoons of butter until the onion is soft. Add 1/3 cup of chopped green pepper and 1/3 cup of chopped red pepper to soften slightly. Add 1/2 cup of mushrooms. Cook one minute.



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