How Long Does Thanksgiving Leftover Food Last?

If your food already entered the "danger zone," you'll definitely want to throw it out.

Thanksgiving centers around a huge, decadent meal. And it's pretty much guaranteed that there will be leftovers. But while you're making your umpteenth turkey sandwich of the week, you might start to wonder: How long is it safe to eat Thanksgiving leftovers? As it turns out, there are a few things to consider before dipping into those Thanksgiving leftovers

The leftovers from last Thanksgiving's meal might still be in your fridge or freezer. But just because you properly store your leftovers doesn't necessarily mean they're still good to eat. What kind of window of time are we talking about here? 

How Long Is It Safe to Eat Thanksgiving Leftovers , Eye Level View of Turkey Carcass on Cutting Board , The remains of a roasted Thanksgiving turkey on a wooden cutting board.
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How Long Are Thanksgiving Leftovers Safe?

Knowing how long your Thanksgiving leftovers are good depends on how you store them. Whether you leave them on the counter, store them in the fridge, or pack them into the freezer, here's what you should know about how long you have to enjoy your leftovers.

Food That Was Left Out

The Department of Agriculture recommends tossing any perishable food sitting out for more than two hours. 

Any food sitting out for that time can enter into the "danger zone." The "danger zone" happens when the food's temperature drops between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, increasing the likelihood that it's unsafe to eat.

But keep in mind that if your food sits out for two hours, it isn't automatically spoiled. Instead, within that range, bacteria rapidly grow, which may cause foodborne illnesses if left out for more than two hours.

Perishable food, like turkey, stuffing, and everything else on your Thanksgiving table, only has a certain amount of time before it enters that zone. So, if your Thanksgiving meal lasted those two hours or you left food sitting out past that timeframe, you should throw it out.

Food That Was Refrigerated

After storing your food in the fridge, the Department of Agriculture recommends that you finish eating all your leftovers within four days. After that time, the risk of contracting a foodborne illness from your Thanksgiving meal goes up.

"The Monday after Thanksgiving should serve as a reminder that this is the last day to safely eat leftovers," Darin Detwiler, PhD, associate professor of food safety at Northeastern University, told Health. The four-day rule applies to all leftovers, including turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted veggies, and desserts, added Detwiler.

Food That Was Frozen

If you want to keep your leftovers a little longer, you can freeze them immediately or within those four days. But remember that while the Department of Agriculture says frozen food stays safe indefinitely, it might not taste as great when defrosted.

Dangers of Eating Leftovers Past Their Prime

Bacteria quickly multiply once they reach the ideal "danger zone" temperature range. The Department of Agriculture says bacteria can double in the "danger zone" in as little as 20 minutes. So, once food cools down to those temperatures, there's a high risk that you may develop a foodborne illness.

There are a bunch of potential bacteria that can thrive and make you sick. But per the Department of Agriculture, some of the most common culprits include:

  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Salmonella enteritidis
  • Escherichia coli O157:H7 (a strain of E. coli)
  • Campylobacter genus

Food that you place in the fridge after it's been sitting out for more than two hours can contaminate the leftovers that you have already stored in the fridge, said Detwiler. If people keep going in and out of food containers, they risk introducing new bacteria to the mix.

How To Be as Safe as Possible

For next Thanksgiving, there are a few things you can do to make your leftovers safe to eat, including:

  • Store them in shallow containers: "This will help cool leftovers more quickly than storing them in large containers, as the somewhat insulated interior areas of the food are able to cool rapidly as well," said Detwiler. "This also reduces the repetitive going in and out of larger containers."
  • Make sure you reheat your leftovers to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit: Sauces, soups, and gravies should come up to a boil before you eat them. If you want to be safe, check the temperature. "When reheating leftovers, make sure they are reheated to 165 degrees using a food thermometer," Ellen Shumaker, PhD, director of outreach for Safe Plates at North Carolina State University, told Health.
  • Cover and rotate food in the microwave for even heating: Otherwise, you may not heat areas in the center of your dish properly.

Food Safety Rules for Specific Foods

The best-by date of your Thanksgiving leftovers may also depend on what kind of leftovers you're dealing with. Here's what you need to know about how long each dish typically lasts.


The Department of Agriculture recommends consuming cooked turkey, the mainstay of most Thanksgiving meals, within three to four days. You must keep the turkey refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less. Refrigeration slows but does not stop bacterial growth.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends refrigerating fruits and vegetables within two hours after cutting, peeling, or cooking them. Or store them within one hour if exposed to temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, like a hot car or picnic.

Chill them at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder in a clean container. Throw them away after four days if kept refrigerated.

Cranberry Sauce

If your cranberry sauce came from a can, the Department of Agriculture recommends that you store the sauce in the fridge. However, storing it in a glass or plastic storage container will retain flavor better. 

For five to seven days, you can store high-acid canned goods, such as tomato products, juice, fruit, pickles, sauerkraut, and foods in vinegar-based sauces.


For three to four days, you can store low-acid canned goods, such as meat, poultry, fish, gravy, stew, soups, beans, carrots, corn, pasta, peas, potatoes, and spinach, in the fridge. But it's best to transfer those goods to a glass or plastic storage container.


According to Shumaker, Apple pie and other fruit pies are OK to be kept at room temperature during that four-day window. 

"The sugar and pH keep bacteria from growing in these pies," said Shumaker. "But other pies, such as custard pies, sweet potato, or pumpkin pies, should be stored in the refrigerator because, even though they have a high sugar content, their pH is not low enough to prevent bacterial growth."

Sniff and Pitch

Sniffing your leftovers isn't a safe method to tell whether they're spoiled, Bruce E. Ruck, PharmD, RPH, managing director of New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told Health.

"Obviously, if something smells bad, throw it out. But you can't usually tell if there is bacterial growth," said Ruck.

And if the idea of pitching a lot of leftovers has you minorly freaking out, just do a little pre-planning for the next Thanksgiving.

 "Plan for re-use of foods within the next 48 hours," said Detwiler. "Use the meat in chili. Use mashed potatoes to make potato pancakes for breakfast. Use vegetables in soup. So many great ideas are out there. Why cook new foods when you have a refrigerator full of leftovers?"

A Quick Review

Most Thanksgivings will result in a bounty of leftovers. As delicious as leftovers are, there is a finite window during which you can safely consume them. The Department of Agriculture recommends throwing any perishable food sitting out for more than two hours. Otherwise, your food will shift into the "danger zone."

Proper storage, proper reheating, and specific guidelines for maximum time to keep leftovers before pitching them are all crucial to keeping bacteria away and keeping you healthy.

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  1. Department of Agriculture. Leftovers: Let’s keep the best part of Thanksgiving safe.

  2. Department of Agriculture. Danger zone.

  3. Department of Agriculture. How long can you keep leftover cooked turkey?.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fruit and vegetable safety.

  5. Department of Agriculture. After you open a can, how long can you keep the food in the refrigerator?.

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