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Safeguard Your Thanksgiving Leftovers

Thanksgiving dinner usually ends with a lot of leftovers for days. To keep your food fresh and your stomach happy, be sure to follow the 2-2-4 formula for reusing leftovers.
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They used to say that Chicago stockyard workers used "everything but the squeal." If you use everything but the gobble, you need to remember several important rules to make sure that table full of lukewarm, breathed-on food is safe to eat later.

William Stallings, MS, RD, clinical dietitian at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, says to remember the "2-2-4" formula. This means:

 

  • 2 hours. Store all leftovers in the refrigerator or freeze no more than two hours after cooking. If food has been out more than two hours, toss it.

  • 2 inches. Use shallow containers, about two inches deep, to store food. This will allow it to cool quickly and evenly, foiling pesky bacteria.

  • 4 days. Eat leftovers within four days. Holiday food kept longer than that should be thrown out. Freeze anything that is not going to be used within four days.

 

It also is important to keep the fridge at 34 to 40 degrees at all times. Don't forget, while preparing the feast, you probably opened it a lot. The setting may need to be lowered a little at least temporarily.

It is also important during prep time, Stallings tells WebMD, to wash your hands frequently and avoid preparing raw meat on a porous surface, such as a wooden cutting board, that might soak up contaminated juices and transfer them to other foods.

Some Foods Keep Better Than Others

Constance Garrett, RD, MS, MA, nutrition and family consumer science adviser at the University of California Cooperative in San Bernardino, tells WebMD that stuffing doesn't keep well. At the very least, it should be removed from the turkey cavity if some of it was placed there. While inside, the dressing may flavor the turkey -- and be flavored by it -- but it might not get hot enough to thoroughly scourge harmful bacteria.

These days, many people put an onion and herbs inside the turkey and prepare the dressing in a separate pan as a side dish.

Stallings says it's OK to cook the stuffing inside, though, if you use a meat thermometer and make sure the stuffing reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

"People also put a lot of delicate stuff in mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving," Garrett says. "They can be risky to keep unrefrigerated."

Sweet potatoes, however, contain sugar and are also prepared using sugary ingredients (such as those excellent little marshmallows). "Sugar," Garrett notes, "acts as something of a preservative."

What about that creamy greenbean/onion ring casserole? "It only contains three-fourths of a cup of milk," Garrett says, "so it keeps fairly well."

She also recommends that some dishes be prepared ahead, frozen or refrigerated, and then microwaved, giving you another shot at zapping harmful bugs. "This keeps the food safe a little longer."

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