Thanksgiving Tips: Keep Leftovers Safe

The turkey is picked-over, the cranberries are nearly gone, and everyone's leaning back from the table loosening their belts. But as Thanksgiving dinner ends, the cook has one more food-safety task to tend to.

That would be storing the leftovers.

Let's face it: We all cook more than we need for Thanksgiving. And turkey sandwiches for lunch post-holiday are part of the charm. A survey by the "Got Milk?" advertising campaign this year found that 76 percent of Americans look forward to leftovers for breaksfast the day after Thanksgiving, with 68 percent going for turkey and 25 percent making a beeline for the pie.

The key to making sure those turkey sandwiches and breakfast pies don't cause salmonella or other foodborne illness is getting leftovers chilled as quickly as possible.

"We don't want to leave it out on the counter and let people pick away at it for hours and hours after the meal," Ben Chapman, a food safety expert at North Carolina State University said in a new video. "We want to get it cool."

For meat, the best strategy is to place sliced portions in plastic baggies and lay them flat in your fridge, Chapman said. That will allow lots of cool air to circulate and bring the meat's temperature down to 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees C), safe for storage, quickly.

Denser foods, such as mashed potatoes, should also go into the refrigerator as soon as possible, Chapman said. Some people believe that they need to leave foods to cool on the counter before putting them in the fridge, but that's a myth, he said. Modern fridges can handle an influx of warm food, while leaving leftovers on the counter just gives bacteria a chance to grow.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.