Tips for Thanksgiving Leftovers

By Kelly Visser, Iowa Food & Family Project

The Iowa Turkey Federation shares tips, tricks and recipes to make the most of your Thanksgiving leftovers!

There’s so much anticipation and planning that goes into preparing a Thanksgiving feast! Sifting through worn family recipe cards, calculating oven timing and scribbling lengthy grocery lists are just a few of the steps families take to make the special holiday possible each year.

But once the table clears and family members retreat to watch football, nap or play games, the often-forgotten question arises: What should we do with all the leftovers?

To make the cleanup easier and post-Thanksgiving weekend meals more delicious, we asked Morgan Minnehan, director of communications and membership at the Iowa Turkey Federation, to share basic leftover turkey tips and tricks. Her storage, safety and reheating advice will help you get the most out of your Thanksgiving feast.

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Iowa FFP: How quickly should you clean up leftovers after the Thanksgiving meal?

Minnehan: Leftovers should be stored within two hours of cooking, but the sooner, the better. If food is still warm, you do not need to wait until it reaches room temperature to put it in the refrigerator or freezer. Leftovers should be cooled as soon as possible, even if they have steam or heat coming off them.

Once leftovers are stored away, avoid opening and closing the refrigerator until the food has time to cool.

Iowa FFP: What containers are best for storing leftovers?

Minnehan: Consider dividing leftovers into smaller portions before refrigerating or freezing so they cool quickly. A large container will take longer to cool, which gives bacteria a chance to multiply.

If you’re freezing leftovers, put side dishes into an airtight freezer container or a freezer bag. Slice meat from the turkey and wrap it in freezer paper or foil, then seal it in plastic freezer bags. 

Labeling your storage containers with the date is an easy way to keep track of how long leftovers have been in the refrigerator or freezer.

Iowa FFP: How long can leftovers be stored in the refrigerator? In the freezer?

Minnehan: Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for three to four days. If you haven’t eaten the leftovers by the Monday after Thanksgiving, you can place them in the freezer to enjoy later. If you store leftovers in the freezer, they are the best quality within 2 to 6 months.

The USDA offers a FoodKeeper app that gives guidelines for safe temperatures, food preparation, recalls and reminder notifications on storage times.

Iowa FFP: Any tips for reheating leftovers?

Minnehan: When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach 165 degrees F, and measure using a food thermometer.

It is safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing, in a saucepan, oven or microwave. If you want to plan ahead and thaw food before reheating, it is safe to do.

If you’re reheating in the microwave, arrange food items evenly in a covered microwave-safe glass or ceramic dish. Use a microwave-safe cover and vent the lid to let the steam escape. Because microwaves can sometimes have cold spots, check the temperatures of the food in several places.

Iowa FFP: What is the best way to keep turkey leftovers moist?  

Minnehan: Before reheating, pour broth over the turkey pieces until the meat is resting in about a 1/2-inch of liquid. If reheating in the microwave, cover the dish with a microwave-safe lid or plastic wrap, but don't let the plastic wrap touch the meat. Do not cut a slit in the plastic wrap.

Iowa FFP: What are some of your favorite leftover turkey recipes?

Minnehan: You can find a lot of great ideas at the National Turkey Federation website or Iowa Turkey Federation’s Pinterest page. Here are a few of my favorites:

Iowa FFP: Any other suggestions for preparing turkey on the big day?

Minnehan: There are a ton of great tips in the Talking Turkey: Your Questions Answered article.

It’s always important to prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen. Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and poultry, and for fruits, vegetables and any other food that does not require cooking. Carefully clean all cutting boards, countertops and utensils with soap and hot water before and after preparing raw meats.

Something that most people don’t know is that you should not rinse or wash your turkey! Most kitchen sinks are not big enough to fit the entire turkey, so by washing you run the risk of splattering water on the counter, which can spread bacteria to areas you may not realize.

Have a question while you’re cooking your turkey? There’s a hotline for that! USDA’s Meat & Poultry Hotline is available year-round to answer food safety and recipe questions at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).