'The dishes can wait, but the food can’t': Waiting too long to put away your Thanksgiving leftovers can make you sick

Joel Shannon, USA TODAY
·3 min read

Safety has taken center stage this Thanksgiving as public health experts are urging Americans to roll back their in-person plans to keep their family safe from the spread of COVID-19. But even at small gatherings, a hidden food safety concern remains: Leftovers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that outbreaks of a bacteria that causes food poisoning occur most often in November and December. Many of those outbreaks have been linked to common holiday foods such as turkey and roast beef.

“Food-borne illnesses are no joke,” Lisa Yakas, a senior project manager at NSF International, told USA TODAY last year. The organization develops health standards and certifications for food, water and consumer products.

Just like the ongoing pandemic, food poisoning is most risky for vulnerable people, such as the elderly. Here's what to know about how to safely store leftovers this holiday:

How long should food remain out? Less than 2 hours

The holiday season spike in food poisoning outbreaks reported by the CDC occurs because of a bacteria that grows in cooked foods left at room temperature.

The key to preventing such outbreaks: Put your leftovers away quickly.

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Leftovers shouldn't be left at room temperature for longer than two hours. So after you're done eating your holiday meal, getting the food put away should be a priority, Yakas says.

“The dishes can wait, but the food can’t,” she says.

When you're putting away leftovers, take the time to portion them out into small containers, preferably ones that are airtight, Yakas says.

Putting large masses of food into a refrigerator or freezer is ineffective because it takes a long time for the food to cool, Yakas says.

How long is turkey good for? Just a few days, unless it's frozen

Once the leftovers are put away in the refrigerator, you have only a few days to eat them before they become a safety risk.

If stored in a refrigerator, leftovers can stay good for three to four days. If they're stored in a freezer, it's three to four months.

It's best to label the food with an expiration date when you put it away, to help you keep track of when it's no longer safe to eat, Yakas recommends.

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That's especially true of food that you put in the freezer, as it's tough to remember how long food has been stored months into the future.

What temperature should your food be? 165 degrees

Putting away leftovers correctly won't keep you healthy if you don't cook the food correctly the first time.

There's only one number to remember whether you're cooking the food the first time or reheating it: 165 degrees.

The CDC recommends heating all leftovers to 165 degrees before eating them.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Thanksgiving leftovers: How long is turkey good for?