A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Spoiled leftovers = spoiled health. Tips to keep ’em fresh

leftovers in bowls and plates

If you’re cooking for Thanksgiving – or any holiday for that matter – likely you’re going to have leftovers.

Nothing tastes better than a leftover turkey sandwich and side of stuffing or mashed potatoes. But it’s important to handle leftovers safely to avoid potentially serious food-borne illnesses such as salmonella.

Roy Radcliff is CEO of Marshfield Food Safety, which provides testing for food production companies in North America. He recommends following recommendations from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which include some simple but often overlooked tips:

3 to 4 days, toss ‘em away

For nearly all traditional Thanksgiving meal leftovers, the mantra to remember is ‘three to four days.’ It’s as simple as it sounds: after three to four days in the fridge, it’s safest to toss most leftovers, according to the USDA.

That holds true for cooked turkey, stuffing, gravy, assorted cooked dishes (casseroles, for example) and cold items such as egg, potato and macaroni salads.

Make sure to store all leftovers in a refrigerator that’s 40 degrees or colder. Always reheat leftover meats to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Room temp – leftovers’ worst enemy

When it comes to leftovers, keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.

Don’t let hot turkey, which needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, reach room temperature. The same goes for cold food such as deli trays and potato salad.

The reason? Room temperature is the closest to ideal growing temperature for bacteria and mold that you’re going to get in your home.

Salmonella, Escherichia Coli (E. coli), listeria and similar food-borne illnesses grow best about 98 degrees, but can grow at lower temperatures (hint: room temperature), too.

“Plus, if you have a kitchen crowded with guests after a long day of using the oven, temps can rise quickly, which is more conducive for bacteria growth,” Radcliff said.

Bad leftovers – you can ‘sense’ them

While a timeframe works best, knowing when to pitch leftovers involves a bit of common sense — as well as your other senses, too.

Radcliff, a food safety expert, always checks three things when it comes to his leftovers:

  • Smell
  • Color
  • Texture

If it stinks, has changed color or is slimy, I recommend not eating it,” he said. “While it may not always make you sick, it’s not worth taking the risk.”

For more information regarding proper cooking and safe food handling, visit foodsafety.gov.

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