Turkey Basics: Safe Handling of Food and Leftovers

Turkey cutlet and stuffing casserole

The Spruce Eats / Diana Chistruga

This article will help you understand when and how to refrigerate, freeze, and reheat turkey and other dinner leftovers.

Keeping Thanksgiving Dinner Warm Warm

If you aren't eating dinner right away, make sure you have a plan to keep the food hot until you do eat.

The danger zone for food is between the temperatures of 40 F (4.4 C) and 140 F (60 C). Harmful bacteria can grow to levels that could cause illness if left in the danger zone too long. Hot food must be kept above 140 F (60 C) if you aren't eating right away.

Cover the food with foil and keep it in an oven that is set between 150 F (65.5 C ) and 200 F (93.3 C), or in a warming drawer. A slow cooker may also be used to keep food hot on the LOW or WARM setting. 

It's best not to keep food hot for more than 2 hours. 

tips for handling thanksgiving leftovers
Illustration: Bailey Mariner. © The Spruce, 2019

Handling Thanksgiving Leftovers

Pack leftovers in shallow containers so they will reach the refrigeration temperature more quickly. If you will be eating much later, here is what you should do:

  • If your turkey is stuffed, remove the stuffing from the turkey cavity to a shallow container. Cover and refrigerate immediately.* 
  • Cut the turkey from the bones, slice as desired, put in containers, cover, and refrigerate. 
  • Potatoes, vegetables, and gravy should also be refrigerated in shallow containers.
  • Reheat everything to at least 165 F (73.9 C). The food should be hot and steaming.

Within 2 hours of cooking food or after it is removed from the oven, warming drawer, slow cooker, or other appliance, leftovers must be refrigerated (if the temperature is above 90 F, refrigerate them within 1 hour). Put the leftovers in shallow layers or in shallow containers so they will cool quickly and then cover and put them in the refrigerator.

Reheat leftovers to at least 165 F (73.9 C).

*A refrigerator must register 40 F (4.4 C) or slightly below. It's a good idea to have a refrigerator thermometer to make sure your food is never in the "danger zone."

Storage Times for Leftovers

Refrigerator (40 F (4.4 C) or slightly below)

Cooked turkey - 3 to 4 days
Stuffing and gravy - 1 to 2 days
Cooked side dishes - 3 to 4 days

Freezer (0 F (-17.78 C) or below)

Turkey slices or pieces - 4 months
Turkey covered with broth or gravy - 6 months
Cooked turkey or poultry dishes - 4 to 6 months
Stuffing and gravy - 1 month