How to eat your Thanksgiving leftovers without risking chemical exposure or food poisoning

How to eat your Thanksgiving leftovers without risking chemical exposure or food poisoning
Jodi Jacobson/Getty Images
  • Make sure to pop your Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge promptly to avoid any uncomfortable consequences.
  • Letting food cool slowly and not heating it to a hot enough temperature can allow bacteria to thrive.

Thanksgiving leftovers might be as iconic as the holiday meal itself.

Heating up a plate of leftovers can be as simple as popping it in the microwave. But it's important to consider when and how you reheat prepared foods, whether it's home cooking or take out.

If you're putting together a cold turkey sandwich or heating up a plate of stuffing and veggies for lunch after the holiday, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Pop your leftovers in the fridge before the celebration is over

Your food only has about two hours to sit on the table before bacteria starts to multiply within, according to the US Department of Agriculture's tips for a safe Thanksgiving. Room temperature — or really any temperature between 40 and 140° F — can quickly become a haven for potentially harmful microbes.

To avoid contaminating all of your leftovers, the USDA recommends putting out just enough food for your guests and refrigerating the rest right away. You may include seconds in this calculation.


Most leftovers will last between three and four days in the fridge, according to You should be more careful with certain meats, like fresh poultry or any ground meat. Turkey shouldn't sit in the fridge for more than two days.

The dessert table doesn't need as strict a treatment. Breads and cakes will actually stay fresher out of the fridge in the short term, and fruit pies can sit out for up to two days uncovered, Insider previously reported. However, be sure to refrigerate pies that contain dairy or eggs (yes, that includes pumpkin pie).

Some rules for refrigerating leftovers:

  • Turkey: Discard any turkey, stuffing, and gravy left out at room temperature longer than 2 hours. If refrigerated, leftovers will be good for 2 days.
  • Sides: Cooked vegetables, rice, and potatoes will keep in the fridge for 3 to 4 days, as long as there's no meat or egg involved.
  • Pies with eggs/dairy: Refrigerate pumpkin, pecan, and cream-based pies within 2 hours of baking or purchasing. They'll last 3 to 4 days in the fridge.
  • Fruit pies: Refrigerate within 2 days of baking or purchasing. They'll last a week in the fridge if you don't finish them sooner.

Be careful not to reheat or refreeze foods multiple times

The upside of eating Thanksgiving leftovers is that you don't have to play the guessing game of "how long has this been in the fridge." However, remember if you made certain foods ahead of the holiday and be careful about reheating them multiple times.

The more times you cool and reheat food, the higher the risk of food poisoning, according to the BBC's Good Food blog. Bacteria can multiply if cooled too slowly or heated to an insufficient temperature.


The USDA says to reheat food until it reaches 165° F on a cooking thermometer. You'll want to avoid the "Danger Zone" of 40 to 140° F as much as possible.

To ensure a quick, even heating in the microwave, arrange the food evenly in a shallow dish. Covering leftovers will also help them heat all the way through while retaining the moisture we all look for in a Thanksgiving turkey.

Don't put plastics in the microwave

Make sure to choose a glass or ceramic dish rather than a plastic container for reheating your leftovers, Leonardo Trasande, director of NYU Langone's Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards, previously told Insider.

Plastics commonly contain phthalates, a class of synthetic chemicals that has been linked to hormonal disruptions, heart disease risk, and early deaths across the board.

Heating up plastics in the microwave (and putting them in the dishwasher) increases the risk of these potentially harmful chemicals leaking out of the container and into your food.


If you can't cut out plastics entirely, you should at least keep them out of the microwave. Make sure to use a safe covering, too — foil should never be used in the microwave, so stick with a glass cover or a damp paper towel for moisture.