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Some Thanksgiving leftovers can spoil faster than others depending on what they are and how they’re stored. Getty Images
  • Thanksgiving leftovers can pose the risk of exposing people to foodborne illnesses if they aren’t prepared or stored properly.
  • People have a habit of leaving the food out on the buffet table long after the meal is finished. If turkey, stuffing, or gravy is left out at room temperature (40 to 140°F) for over 2 hours it may no longer be safe to eat.
  • Bacteria prospers at this temperature, increasing the risk of foodborne illness.
  • When stored properly in a refrigerator, turkey leftovers generally stay good for 3 to 4 days.

For many people, enjoying leftovers in the days following Thanksgiving is as integral a part of the beloved holiday as football and family tension.

Some may warm those leftovers on a plate, while others may simply pile turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole onto a Hawaiian roll for the most Thanksgiving sandwich you can imagine.

Either way, those leftovers are getting eaten.

Unfortunately, as delicious as those leftovers taste going down, your memories of them won’t be quite so grand if they wind up coming right back up.

“If one gets bacterial food poisoning from food that was handled or stored improperly, they can feel symptoms as soon as a few hours after consumption,” said registered dietitian Bonnie Balk of Maple Holistics.

Which foods you save, how you store them, and for how long can make a big difference in whether or not the items you plan to gobble after the Thanksgiving may pose a potential health risk.

Here’s what to keep in mind before you fill your plate with all that leftover Thanksgiving goodness.

Jamie Bacharach is a licensed medical acupuncturist and nutritional consultant for Acupuncture Jerusalem who has extensive experience helping her patients deal with foodborne illnesses.

She said that some of the biggest culprits of foodborne illness on your holiday table include:

  • Mashed potatoes. When left at room temperature for too long, mashed potatoes or any cooked potatoes can develop botulism due to the bacteria present. When baked in foil, this becomes even more likely. The bacteria may be so overwhelming that even reheating potatoes at a high temperature will not sufficiently kill it off.
  • Stuffing. Because it’s prone to the development of pathogenic bacteria, stuffing can prove dangerous to enjoy as a leftover. Stuffing often doesn’t give off a visual sign or smell of deterioration, but it can still make its consumers sick.
  • Turkey. Raw poultry is a hotbed of bacteria that can itself prove dangerous as well as contaminate other foods it comes into contact with. Even when sufficiently cooked, poultry presents certain dangers, particularly when dealing with a turkey that has been left out to develop bacteria for hours on Thanksgiving Day.

When it comes to Thanksgiving leftovers, people have a habit of leaving the food out on the buffet table for far too long before storing it away. That’s because everyone likes to continue grazing, even long after the meal has ended.

But this is one mistake that could lead to a lot of pain.

“If any turkey, stuffing, or gravy was left out at room temperature (40 to 140°F) for over 2 hours, say goodbye to your holiday souvenir,” said Balk. “Bacteria prospers at this temperature, increasing the risk of foodborne illness.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) backs her up, urging consumers to “refrigerate leftovers at 40°F or colder as soon as possible and within 2 hours of preparation to prevent food poisoning.”

If you want those leftovers for later enjoyment, forget Aunt Mildred barking at you about coming back for thirds and start storing your food items away as soon as you finish your first round.

When you do pack those leftovers up, Balk recommends portioning them out into smaller serving sizes for storage “to avoid a buildup of bacteria from growing.”

And because you want to ensure all food items are cooled prior to putting them in the refrigerator, since sealing warm food and putting it in a cool environment can promote moisture and bacterial growth, she suggests placing turkey in shallow containers with a tight cover for quicker cooling.

Bacharach said that another big mistake people make is overloading their fridge when they do store their leftovers.

“A family fridge may never be as full as it is after a Thanksgiving dinner, but what people don’t recognize is that when a fridge is too overloaded, the temperature of the fridge drops,” Bacharach said.

That means the food you thought you stored properly could be spoiling within the confines of your refrigerator, with bacteria reproducing and just waiting for a chance to make you sick.

“Learn to recognize when your fridge is not operating at its full capacity,” Bacharach advised. “And adjust your food storage accordingly.”

So, let’s say you were smart and got all your leftovers stored away properly, with plenty of fridge room to spare. That doesn’t mean you can enjoy those leftovers indefinitely.

Food still spoils eventually, even when properly stored.

“Bear in mind that turkey leftovers stay good for 3 to 4 days in the fridge,” Balk explained.

It’s a timeline that’s generally a safe bet for all your other Thanksgiving favorites as well.

“If you plan to eat them longer, then consider freezing them, as they can safely last in the freezer 2 to 6 months,” Balk added.

While we know that sandwich we mentioned earlier sounds delicious — a bit of Thanksgiving in every bite — keep in mind that eating leftovers straight from the fridge increases your risk of contracting a foodborne illness.

“Undercooked food or under heated leftovers have not been hit with a sufficient amount of heat in order to kill threatening bacteria that develops and persists,” said Bacharach. “Eating leftovers cold, or eating your food raw or undercooked the first time around, are sure ways to increase the risks that leftover food will cause problems when eaten.”

To reduce those risks, she suggests cooking all foods to at least 150°F. This will “avoid the danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees for cooking as defined by the USDA.”

Sometimes you can do everything right, or at least think you’re doing everything right, and foodborne bacteria will still become an issue.

If you begin experiencing any signs of stomach upset, Bacharach says you should throw out the foods you suspect may have made you ill immediately.

“It is advisable to begin consuming foods which can naturally counteract the effects of the illness,” Bacharach explained. “This includes ginger, thanks to its anti-inflammatory and warming properties, and green onions, which are high in antibacterial and antimicrobial content.”

These, she explained, can be brewed into a tea and sipped while symptoms persist.

“Drink plenty of water in order to replenish your fluids and keep you well hydrated while you are suffering from your illness, as dehydration is a risk.”

And if you do feel like eating, she suggests keeping your meals light.

“Your system is being taxed enough trying to fight through food poisoning, it doesn’t need the added task of digesting new, challenging foods,” she said.

When in doubt, don’t hesitate to seek medical advice and throw any remaining leftovers out.