How To Store Your Holiday Leftovers and Avoid Foodborne Illness

Person storing leftovers

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Key Takeaways

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six people (or 48 million people) gets sick with a foodborne illness annually.
  • Taking simple steps to store, cool, and reheat your leftovers properly can help prevent a food poisoning situation over the holidays and beyond. 

Holiday meals are what dreams are made of. From decadent cheese boards to a traditional turkey or ham, enjoying a classic meal with family and friends (or by yourself—thanks COVID-19) is a time-honored tradition that many of us look forward to.

But while many of us are pros when it comes to making the holiday meal, we may not be a savant in the leftover safety department. Contrary to popular belief, there is an art to storing and handling leftovers to ensure that they are safe to consume. 

Why is food safety important? Eating leftovers, unfortunately, comes with some risk if the food isn’t stored properly and consumed in a safe window of time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that food poisoning cases occur most often during the holiday season, meaning that foodborne illness obtained from holiday food is more common than many of us may realize. And since many of the food poisoning cases have been linked to improper storage of common holiday food, we can assume that committing to proper storage and handling of our food can help us reduce the risk of landing in the ER hunched over from belly pain. 

Improper food storage, inadequate heating, or keeping leftovers too long can be a breeding ground to harmful bacteria or viruses—think Clostridium perfringens, Bacillus cereus, and Salmonella as examples. Ingesting these foreign bodies can result in some pretty unsavory side effects like vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. For example, in the case of Clostridium perfringens, a bacteria that grows in cooked foods left at room temperature is the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning. The major symptoms are vomiting and abdominal cramps within six to 24 hours after eating. The annual number of outbreak-associated illnesses ranged from 359 to 2,173, and 16% of cases stem from at-home consumption of certain foods.

So, what can you do to reduce the risk of foodborne illness during the holidays? Below are some tips to help you keep your leftovers pathogen-free this holiday season.

What This Means For You

Mishandled leftovers can lead to a food poisoning outbreak. Knowing how to avoid foodborne illness by incorporating these tips into your holiday storage plan can make a big difference to your health.

Storing Leftovers Properly

Before you start worrying about how long certain foods can stay in your refrigerator safely, you need to make sure they are stored properly.

Before storing your leftovers make sure you:

  • Wash your hands before you handle the food. 
  • Don’t leave food unrefrigerated for more than two hours before storing. 
  • Divide your food into smaller portions to avoid the potential of a bacteria buildup and to allow more-even cooling.
  • Slice your ham or turkey before storing in the refrigerator to allow for more even cooling. 
  • Ensure food isn’t too hot before storing to prevent excess moisture production, which can act as a breeding ground for bacteria.  

While storing your leftovers:

  • Use air-tight and leak proof storage items. Glass storage containers are preferred, but if plastic is being used, make sure the container is intact.   
  • Avoid over-packing the refrigerator. Having too much food in the fridge can prevent the machine from being able to maintain an appropriate temperature. 
  • Avoid covering a half-empty serving dish to place in the refrigerator. Instead, transfer the food to a smaller storage holder and cover properly.
  • Resist the temptation to taste your leftovers as you are transferring them. If you use the same spoon to taste and transfer, your germs will get mixed into the food and contaminate them.

When Do You Need To Eat Your Leftovers By?

You can’t keep nibbling on those leftover potatoes and casseroles for weeks after they have already been cooked and served. Generally speaking, leftovers need to be enjoyed within four days of preparation. Of course, if your meat is looking slimy or your veggies are moldy, use your best judgment and toss them beforehand. 

There will always be acceptations to the rule, For example, that fruitcake you received from your great aunt in the mail will last you about six months before you have to toss it—and even longer if you stick it in the freezer. And anything raw or undercooked when served will have a shorter shelf-life than three to four days. 

Rule of thumb? When it doubt, throw it out. And always reheat your food when possible to kill any potential pathogens that may have started growing. 

Can You Freeze Your Leftovers?

Most of your favorite holiday foods can be frozen and enjoyed for months to come. When freezing your food, you want to make sure that it reaches a temperature of 0 °F or lower, as that is the temperature that prevents bacterial overgrowth. 

Food should be stored in airtight containers or freezer bags, labeled with the food item and date of freezing, and placed as far back into the freezer as possible. If the food is hot, cool it in the fridge before placing it in the freezer. And plan on enjoying your foods within two to three months of freezing. Although many foods will remain safe to eat beyond that time-frame, the taste and quality can often be sacrificed as time marches on. 

Do You Need To Thaw Your Frozen Leftovers Before Heating?

Once you are ready to enjoy your frozen leftovers, you may be wondering what you should do with that block of food-ice. Thankfully, there is no reason why you have to thaw your pre-cooked frozen food before reheating. Whether you re-heat your food in the microwave, in a saucepan, or in the oven, it is fine to go through the process with frozen food. Just make sure that the food is heated to a minimum of 165 °F. 

Leftovers are one of the best things that come out of the holiday season. But dealing with a food poisoning situation can really put a damper on your celebration. Taking some simple steps to help avoid foodborne illness can make a big difference.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Burden of foodborne illness: findings.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food safety tips for your holiday turkey.

  3. Bacteria and viruses.

  4. Grass J, Gould H, Mahon B. Epidemiology of foodborne disease outbreaks caused by Clostridium perfringens, United States, 1998-2010Foodborne Pathog Dis. 2013 Feb;10(2):131-6. doi:10.1089/fpd.2012.1316

  5. State Food Safety. Safety food resources

  6. United States Department of Agriculture. Leftovers and food safety.