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Safe Handling of Holiday Leftovers

Leftovers are the culinary castaways of the kitchen. The boxed-up remains of dinners past that are rarely eaten, and ultimately discarded once the pungent reminder of their existence wafts through the kitchen.

Thanksgiving however, has a way of elevating our leftovers to loftier heights, and puts them front and center on the culinary stage. Whether it’s a simple sandwich, or a complicated pot pie, the last thing your Thanksgiving leftovers will see is the bottom of a garbage can.

Because leftovers are so often the pariah of the fridge, our inexperience with their safe handling puts us at a disadvantage in the war against food borne bacteria. Knowing how to properly cool, store and reheat our food can (in the case of Thanksgiving)  mean the difference between a peaceful transition to Christmas, or a bitter date with a stomach bug.


If you’re planning on serving those leftovers hot, you’ll have six hours to get them below 41°F. According to Hazardous Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) guidelines, food should be cooled from 135°F to 70°F within 2 hours and 70°F to 41°F within 4 hours.

If it’s a cold sandwich you’re looking forward to, you have less time to get those temperatures down. HACCP says food being prepared for cold consumption needs to get below 41°F within four hours.

HACCP guidelines do not guarantee that bacteria will not multiply, they’re designed to simply contain their growth. Sufficed to say, the faster you can get the temperature down, the better.

One small caveat about cooling – don’t attempt to rapidly cool your food in the fridge. Putting warm food in the fridge will increase the ambient temperature inside and doing so will put all of the food inside the fridge at risk.

Instead, speed up the process with an ice bath prior to storing the food in the refrigerator. Once your leftovers have dropped near 70°F, cover and store. It may also help to label the container with a time and date, just in case you forget when they went into the fridge, Whatever you do, don’t let leftovers sit on the counter for any period of time without monitoring the temperature.

Although HACCP says you have a relatively wide window of opportunity for hot and cold service (6 and 4 hours respectively) we stress the importance of getting your food out of the danger zone (135-41°F) as soon as possible.


As soon as the leftovers are cool enough to not overheat your fridge (say below 80°F), move them promptly into the and keep them their until you’re ready to serve them.

Leftovers should be eaten within 3-4 days. If you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to meet that deadline, store them in the freezer (0°F) until you’re ready to eat.


When you reheat any leftovers, remember that the magic number is 165. That’s the temperature you’re going to have to get the internal temperature of your food up to to ensure a sufficient bacterial kill rate.

HACCP requires that all leftovers be reheated to 165°F for at least 15 seconds. Reheat all foods rapidly. The total time the temperature of the food is between 41°F and 165°F should not exceed two hours.

Food that has been reheated should be served immediately! Reheat only what you plan on eating, because re-cooling leftovers after they’ve been reheated is not recommended.

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