The centerpiece of the Thanksgiving celebration for many families across the United States is the feast. But once the annual meal is finished, a question families face is what to do with the leftovers: eat them or throw them out?
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, estimates about 200 million pounds of turkey meat is thrown out after Thanksgiving. To avoid throwing out food, and enjoy the tasty Thanksgiving meal again, people are asking how long they can store leftovers.
Google Trends shows searches for “how long do Thanksgiving leftovers last” have spiked in the days leading up to the holiday. One YouTube video with more than 500,000 views says people should eat refrigerated leftovers within four days.
Are refrigerated Thanksgiving leftovers safe to eat for four days?
Yes, refrigerated Thanksgiving leftovers are safe to eat for four days.
WHAT WE FOUND
The Mayo Clinic says refrigerated leftovers, regardless of whether it’s Thanksgiving or not, should be eaten within three to four days.
“After that, the risk of food poisoning increases,” the medical organization says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has food safety tips specifically for the Thanksgiving holiday. It advises people that the Monday after Thanksgiving is the last day to safely eat leftovers.
Minh Duong, a postdoctoral associate of food safety at Virginia Tech, says food sitting in the refrigerator for more than four days allows bacteria, called spoilage microorganisms, to build up, which is why leftovers can sometimes have a rank smell or look unappealing when stored for too long.
But bacteria don’t always change the appearance or smell of leftovers, according to the Mayo Clinic. So, even if the food still looks or smells normal, it’s best to avoid eating leftovers if it’s been more than four days.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” said Duong. “It's not worth making yourself sick or your loved ones sick just to have that extra Thanksgiving meal.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that a common food poisoning bacterium, called Clostridium perfringens, is reported more often in November and December.
“Many of these outbreaks have been linked to foods commonly served during the holidays, such as turkey and roast beef,” the CDC says.
The safety of leftovers is also dependent on when the food is stored and how it is prepared when served again. The USDA says it’s best to refrigerate perishable foods in a shallow container within two hours of coming out of the oven or refrigerator, even if it’s still hot.
“After two hours, perishable food enters the ‘Danger Zone’ (between 40 F and 140 F), where bacteria can multiply quickly and cause food to become unsafe,” the agency says.
Then, when eating leftovers, the USDA says it’s important to reheat the food to at least 165 F and reheat sauces and gravies to a rolling boil.
For people who are unsure about whether they’ll be able to eat leftovers by the Monday after Thanksgiving, there’s the option of freezing.
“If you want to keep leftovers longer, freeze them within that four-day period,” the USDA recommends. “Frozen food stays safe indefinitely, though the quality may decrease over time (best quality if eaten within six months).”
Refrigerating or freezing isn’t an all-or-nothing choice. There’s always the option to do both – refrigerate what can be eaten within the four-day window and freeze the rest.
The USDA has a chat line for anyone with questions about food safety.
More from VERIFY: Verifying which Thanksgiving foods are safe for pets