Commonsense guide to Thanksgiving leftovers: Fayetteville food safety expert answers FAQs

The most important thing is to enjoy the holiday and not stress about what to eat or not to eat.
The most important thing is to enjoy the holiday and not stress about what to eat or not to eat.

The sandwich you make with all the prized leftovers the day after Thanksgiving might be even better than the main event. Piled high with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and mayonnaise — some look forward to it all year.

But without proper food safety measures, eating what remains after the party is over can be dangerous. We consulted Fayetteville culinary arts teacher Margaret Johnson on what you need to know to keep your family merry and healthy all season long.

For 18 years, Johnson has taught cooking methods, baking and food safety at E.E. Smith High School, where she and her students cater events, and some go on to pursue culinary school.

More:From beach trips to goat barbacoa, this is how Fayetteville area chefs spend Thanksgiving

Here’s a look at a few frequently asked questions about leftovers and food safety.

How long can Thanksgiving food sit out at room temperature?

At a maximum, food can be at room temperature for two hours; anything left out longer than that should be tossed. Temperatures between 41 and 135 degrees are considered the “danger zone,” where bacteria grow at an accelerated rate, Johnson said.

The goal is to get keep food out of the danger zone as much as possible. That means the dishes can wait, but putting away leftovers can't.

“My recommendation is that you get your food into the fridge as soon as you can after eating,” she said.

How should Thanksgiving leftovers be stored?

While Johnson recommends getting food into the fridge as soon as possible, she also cautions against overcrowding the refrigerator. Before Thanksgiving, it's not a bad idea to clear space in the fridge for your holiday feast.

“There has to be air circulating to keep things cool,” she said.

If too many hot foods are put in at once, it can raise the temperature, putting everything stored there at risk, she said. To avoid this, steps can be taken to cool food down before putting it away.

Deboning the turkey will help it cool faster, Johnson said, and you can even use ice baths to cool down gravy or stock, as restaurants do.

What is the safest way to reheat leftovers?

Johnson said heating to 135 degrees is preferable. In layman’s terms, she said, “heat thoroughly.”

How long do Thanksgiving leftovers last in the fridge?

Johnson said the National Restaurant Association allows for seven days, but “you might consider not holding them for that long.”

Some experts say that cooked turkey should be eaten or frozen within three to four days.

Are there any interesting ways to use up Thanksgiving leftovers?

Johnson recommends swapping out the chicken in your favorite chicken salad recipe for turkey. Or, she said, make turkey wraps, and don’t be afraid to get creative.

"You can add black beans, corn and chipotle, for example,” she said.

She also recommends turkey pot pie. But, Johnson said, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to a good ol’ turkey sandwich either.

Reporter Taylor Shook can be reached at Want food news in your inbox every Thursday? Sign up for the Fayetteville Foodies newsletter.

This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: How long does leftover turkey last? Food safety expert answers FAQs