How long can you save Thanksgiving leftovers?

Smaller holiday celebrations don't always mean less food. Here’s how you can save and store your Thanksgiving leftovers.

Thanksgiving Leftovers
(Image credit: Element 5 Digital)

Thanksgiving leftovers are probably the best part of our favorite all-American holiday. After all that work prepping, cooking, and cleaning, it's great to heat up some leftovers or enjoy a cold turkey sandwich (extra mayo, of course) in the days to come.

This year, public health officials are calling for smaller gatherings, so chances are you aren't cooking for a party of 12. But since you can't cook half of a turkey, the extra food is sure to be plentiful. Don't let one bite of your hard work go to waste! Read on for our complete guide on how long your Thanksgiving leftovers will last in the fridge and freezer, and how you can repurpose them in creative — and delicious — ways. 

Still need to go shopping? Reference our comprehensive Thanksgiving grocery list

Safely store your leftovers

Thanksgiving Leftovers

(Image credit: Kraken Images)

There's nothing better than lounging around the table after a great meal, enjoying conversation with family and sipping some well-deserved wine. But, take care not to linger too long before cleaning up. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, perishable food should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. 

Also, forget the myth that you need to wait for your leftovers to cool to room temperature before refrigerating them. The DHHS says to store extra food as soon as possible, even if it's still steaming. Once stashed in the fridge, you have three to four days to use or freeze your leftovers. (That's the Monday after Thanksgiving, for those counting.)

Once frozen, your food will be its best quality if eating within the next two to six months. 

Thanksgiving leftovers: Let's talk turkey

Thanksgiving Leftovers

(Image credit: Claudio Schwartz for Unsplash)

Roasting a whole turkey requires a lot of work. It's a day (or days, if you're brining ahead of time) of TLC, constantly monitoring and checking your bird. Unfortunately, your work isn't done after the big meal. 

Though it may be tempting to put some foil on your uneaten turkey and pop it in the fridge, that's not the safest bet. A whole bird will take longer to cool down to a safe temperature, which can give bacteria a chance to multiply.  

Instead, be sure to pick the carcass once it's cool enough to handle and portion it for quick cooling. This can also save time later if you need to freeze it, since it will already be in smaller portions perfect for reheating. If you're planning to keep cooked turkey in the fridge, it'll also be good for three or four days max.

But that doesn't mean you should toss the carcass! Once it's picked relatively clean, tent it in foil and place in the fridge overnight. The next day, you can prepare some delicious turkey carcass soup using many ingredients you probably already have on hand from your Thanksgiving dinner (potatoes, carrots, celery, onion). By boiling the carcass, you create a tasty broth, and any remaining meat just falls off the frame. To really make this last, leave out the potatoes and freeze several portions of the soup to be enjoyed at a later date. 

How to reheat Thanksgiving leftovers

Thanksgiving Leftovers

(Image credit: Gardie Design & Social Media Marketing)

If your favorite way to enjoy leftover turkey is straight out of the fridge, piled on a sandwich with extra mayo, that's totally OK (so long as it was properly stored within two hours of being at room temperature). But when it comes to reheating frozen leftovers, there are some rules. 

According to the DHHS, it is safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing them first on your stovetop or in the microwave. Just be sure they reach 165 degrees F, measured with a food thermometer. For soups, gravies, and sauces, bring them to a rolling boil. 

When reheating a dish in the microwave, cover and rotate it so it cooks evenly. Covering food will create a moist heat that will help destroy bacteria and encourage uniform cooking that won't dry out your food. 

Easy as pie

Thanksgiving Leftovers

(Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez for Unsplash)

Of course, Thanksgiving wouldn't be complete without the pie. When it comes to food safety, storing them depends on the type of pie you are cooking. Fruit pies, for example, generally have so much sugar that they're well-equipped to fight bacteria. They can be left at room temperature if cooked the day of Thanksgiving. (For the best taste, my grandmother always says you should never sleep on a pie.)

However, custard pies containing dairy should follow the same rules as the rest of your holiday leftovers: store in the fridge within two hours left out at room temperature. Most pies can be stored safely in the refrigerator for three to four days after cooking.

Can you freeze pie? Again, the answer depends. Most fruit pies can be frozen for one to two months. However, anything with a more complex filling — like pecan, pumpkin, and custard pies — will separate and get soggy in the freezer. 

Creative ways to enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers

While there's nothing wrong with making yourself a plate of leftovers and zapping it in the microwave, you might be a little tired of the same-old, same-old by day three. To finish up your leftovers before the four-day "use or freeze" timeframe, we love these creative ways to enjoy them: 

Thanksgiving Leftovers

(Image credit: Nicola Dreyer for Unsplash)