'Tis the Season: Storage & Heating Tips for Holiday Leftovers

'Tis the Season: Storage & Heating Tips for Holiday Leftovers Image

If you’re planning a holiday meal, now is a great time to brush up on the proper ways to safely store and reheat leftovers.

According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), leftover food lingers after 99 percent of all holiday meals. Knowing the basics of food storage and reheating is important for retaining flavor and nutrients, stretching food dollars and reducing the risk of food-borne illness. 

Love Your Leftovers with these Top Ten Holiday Tips: 

  1. Refrigerate all leftovers promptly. After a big meal, it can be tempting to leave leftovers out on the counter for hours. To prevent bacteria from getting a foothold, hot and cold foods should be packaged and stored in airtight plastic containers within two hours after cooking, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


  2. Prepare "turkey-to-go" bags. Keep extra plastic sealable bags and containers on hand to send guests home with turkey, stuffing and other leftovers. This is a great way to save space – and share the leftover calories! 


  3. Divide and conquer. Divide all leftovers into several single-serving size plastic containers less than two inches deep to allow food to cool faster. Package and store turkey slices, stuffing and gravy separately in the refrigerator. The FDA recommends using turkey and stuffing within 3-4 days, gravy within 1-2 days.  (See our Cold Storage Chart to learn more about how long various foods will keep in the fridge or freezer.)


  4. Don't overstuff (the refrigerator). Holiday meals often lead to cluttered, overfilled refrigerators. Cold air must be able to circulate to keep food cold and safely stored. Save shelf space by storing leftovers in compact, stackable plastic containers or sealable bags.


  5. Seal the deal. Keep turkey moist and fresh by cutting leftover meat off the bone and wrapping small portions tightly with plastic wrap or in sealable plastic bags. Squeeze air out of the bag before sealing to help reduce oxygen exposure and prevent freezer burn.


  6. Stock up for winter. Too full to think about leftovers right now? Enjoy your favorite dishes throughout the winter by freezing leftovers in plastic freezer bags or containers that are labeled for use in the freezer, microwave and dishwasher. Label and date wrapped packages and use them appropriately within the first few months of winter.


  7. Never defrost at room temperature. To avoid risk of contamination, thaw food gradually in the refrigerator or in sealed plastic bags in cold water.  For quicker thawing, defrost leftovers in the microwave in plastic wraps or bags labeled for freezer and microwave use.  (Learn more about Safe Food Handling.)


  8. Microwave the right way. Holiday meal preparation often yields empty plastic packaging and containers, like whipped cream or butter tubs. These may provide convenient cold food storage, but are not designed with high heat resistance for use in the microwave oven.  Before heating, always check the label and transfer leftovers into a plastic container specifically designed for microwave use.  (See our Microwave Heating Guide for more info on which plastics to use in the microwave oven.)


  9. Keep it covered. Use plastic wrap to cover leftover dishes in the microwave to allow for even heating, retain moisture and prevent messy splatters. Cover food loosely, allowing about an inch of space between the wrap and the dish, and vent one corner to allow steam to escape.  Be careful when removing hot foods from the microwave. Lift plastic wrap with the opening facing away from you so hot steam can be released safely.


  10. Size matters. For even reheating, cut turkey or other foods into uniform pieces and spread them evenly around a plate or microwavable plastic dish. If food pieces are different sizes, place the thicker pieces on the outer edge of your dish so they will heat faster.  (Get more Microwave Cooking Basics.) 


Receive the latest plastics news and information » sign up