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Taking Care of Those Leftovers

How to safely store those wonderful holiday leftovers.

Nashville, Ark. – After Thanksgiving is over you'll be faced with the task of what to do with all those leftovers. While most people enjoy “Encore Presentations” for a day or two after the big meal, it is recommended that food be eaten, frozen, or thrown away on day four. Food is expensive. Here are the steps to assure food will be safe to eat after your holiday meal.

  • Refrigerate Promptly. Perishable foods must be refrigerated within two hours of the total time they have been at room temperature to reduce the growth of possible foodborne illnesses. Perishable foods include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, dairy products, pasta, rice, cooked vegetables, fresh, peeled and/or cut fruits and vegetables. Basically, all Thanksgiving foods.
  • Cool foods “slightly” before putting in the refrigerator. To help foods cool quickly and to slow bacteria growth, place leftovers in a shallow dish no more than 2 inches deep. This will allow cold air to circulate around the dish. Allow to cool at room temperature for about 20 minutes before refrigeration. While most foods placed in serving dishes will be cool after the meal, those left in crock pots or on heating pads may not. It is especially important to divide those foods into the shallow dishes before storing in the refrigerator.
  • Store properly in the refrigerator. Holidays typically have a lot of leftover foods. Avoid “stuffing” your refrigerator! Stacking food containers may not allow enough air circulation to cool the foods properly. If needed, consider placing some leftovers in the freezer to enjoy later.
  • Use the right tools for freezing foods. Use “freezer” bags not “storage” bags for storing food in the freezer. Freezer bags are thicker than storage bags and will keep food fresh longer. Speed freezing and hasten thawing by freezing foods in a thin, flattened shape in the freezer bags. A rounded shape takes longer to thaw through the middle. Flatter packages will stack better. If you are concerned about potential leakage from not having a proper seal, place the bag on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, you can remove the cookie sheet. Do not stack freezer bags until they are frozen.
  • Label foods. How many times have you pulled something from the freezer and asked, “What is this?” To avoid mystery meats and foods of unknown age and possible origin, label foods using freezer tape, freezer labels or permanent marking pens to identify the food before putting it in the freezer. Be sure to put the name of the food, packaging date, number of servings or amount, and any additional information, such as sliced, chopped, etc., and any special ingredients.
  • Thaw and cook frozen foods. DO NOT thaw perishable foods at room temperature. If perishable foods are left at room temperature too long, bacteria may grow and cause a food-borne illness. Cooking may not destroy these toxins. It is best to plan ahead and thaw in the refrigerator. Most foods will take 24 hours to thaw in the refrigerator depending on the amount. If you think the packaging may leak, be sure to place a plate or pan underneath.
  • Use the microwave to thaw. The microwave can be a great tool for quick thawing of frozen foods. However, these foods must be reheated properly. Microwave-thawed foods reach temperatures that encourage bacterial growth. Cook immediately to kill any bacteria that may have developed and to prevent further bacterial growth. You may remove the food from the freezer bag and transfer to a microwave safe container before thawing. Check the freezer storage bag container to see if they are microwave safe.

Visiting with relatives and friends, watching the parade or games, and eating the Thanksgiving meal all create fond memories. Take steps to avoid an unwanted guest – foodborne illness.

If you would like a fact sheet on how long food will last in the freezer, contact the Howard County Cooperative Extension Service at 870-845-7517 or visit our office located on the second floor of the courthouse. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Information for this article was adapted from a similar article from Nebraska Extension.

Recipe of the Week

This recipe was shared by Sherry Wenta at a recent Extension Homemaker Council meeting. She received several requests for the recipe. It would make a terrific addition to your holiday meals.

Creamy Asparagus Casserole

  • 15 oz. can asparagus spears

  • 3 slices American cheese (cubed) or ½ cup of shredded Velveeta cheese

  • 1 (10 ¾ oz.) can cream of mushroom soup

  • ¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted

  • 2 hard cooked eggs, sliced

  • ½ cup cracker crumbs

  • 1 Tablespoon melted butter

  1. Layer half each of asparagus spears, egg slices, soup, and almonds in a 1-quart baking dish that has been sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Repeat layers.
  3. Cover and bake at 350°F for 15 minutes.
  4. Combine cheese, cracker crumbs and butter.
  5. Sprinkle over casserole.
  6. Return dish to oven and bake uncovered 10 to 15 minutes until cheese melts and top is golden brown. 



By Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
421 N. Main St, Nashville AR 71852
(870) 845-7517


The Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service is an equal opportunity/equal access/affirmative action institution. If you require a reasonable accommodation to participate or need materials in another format, please contact your County Extension office (or other appropriate office) as soon as possible. Dial 711 for Arkansas Relay.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.