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By: Betanya “Mimi” Alemu, University of Maryland Dietetic Intern   Date: 11/23/11

It’s November and Thanksgiving is almost here. It’s time to consider all the planning, shopping, preparing, cooking, serving and wrapping leftovers without being traumatized. 

The Meal
Every year my family gathers at my older sister’s house. We all come with our appetites ready for the unveiling of the food, and when it’s ready, everyone’s excitement just suddenly appears, almost as if we were all secretly waiting for that single moment since we arrived. 

Eating on Thanksgiving is like running a marathon you haven't prepared for," my step-father jokes. Every year we load up the plates full of every possible item, all the while thinking, "Of course I can eat all this." Halfway through the process, the realization hits us. "What were we thinking?"

The Leftovers
One of the joys of being the holiday host is having delicious leftovers available for future meals. As is likely true with many families, we prepare enough food to feed three times the number of guests. Inevitably, after Thanksgiving the refrigerator is full of turkey, mashed potatoes and, worst of all, a lot of food in the trash can. For many people, it can be difficult to safely store the leftovers and also understand how quickly food can become spoiled if it is stored improperly. 

How to Safely Store Leftovers
Knowing the basics of storing leftovers and reheating are essential for retaining flavor, nutrients, stretching food dollars and reducing the risk of foodborne illness.  Instead of tossing out those holiday leftovers, make an effort to prepare them wisely by incorporating them within your daily meals or trying out new recipes.. Also remember that different foods can be stored in the refrigerator for different amounts of time, and it is important to know the guidelines.

Essential Tips Include:

  • Put any leftovers back into your refrigerator within two hours after preparation

    o Store large amounts of food in shallow containers for quicker cooling

 When reheating leftovers, use a food thermometer to make sure they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
    o Throw away anything that has been in the fridge for more than a 3-4 days You can store leftovers in the freezer if you won’t be able to eat them within a few days, but remember that cooked turkey should only be kept in the freezer for 3-4 months.

A Tool to Help: The 4-Day Throw Away
The “4-Day Throw Away “  campaign is one tool to help assist people to be responsive to the risks and dangers of foodborne illness and also provides guidelines for eating, freezing and throwing away leftovers.  “4-Day Throw Away”  includes a website and a free app from our expert friends at Iowa State University Extension and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. The application has a list of food items that can be searched by keywords and in addition to that, under each food item, recommendations such as storage, reheating instructions and special considerations are listed.

UNL Extension Food Specialist Julie Albrecht said “The 4-day guideline is a great standard to follow if you are unsure whether a leftover food item is OK to eat or not and also an effort to keep young children safe from food borne illness , because children at this age are more at risk.”

Have a happy, safe and healthful Thanksgiving, but be sure not to forget to properly care for your food once the big meal is over. There’s nothing worse than getting sick because you were careless with your leftovers, especially when keeping them safe is so easy.  For more information on Thanksgiving preparation, visit  





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