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Nov. 10, 2017

Don’t let bacteria ruin those Thanksgiving leftovers

By Seth Blomeley
For the U of A System Division of Agriculture

Fast facts

  • Promptly refrigerate leftovers to prevent dangerous bacterial growth
  • Shallow containers enable food to cool more quickly
  • Plan ahead: Is there enough space in the fridge for leftovers?

NASHVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas families love Thanksgiving. They cook a lot of food.

That turkey we all look forward to slicing and sampling and gorging on could be with us for a while.

Bacteria will be ready. 

So, we need to be smart — and diligent — in how we save those yummy drumsticks, hearty mashed potatoes, and creamy gravy.

The biggest mistake
The biggest mistake holiday eaters and cooks make is letting the banquet food sit around too long in the kitchen, said Jean Ince, County Extension Agent for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service in Howard County.

“They’ll wait and say, ‘I’m just doing to sit down for just a little bit,’” Ince said. “They get too busy or they get tired and take a nap for something like that. People just do not realize that bacteria can grow and multiply rapidly.”

That’s why it’s so important to promptly refrigerate leftovers, either by wrapping them up tightly or placing them in air-tight containers.

Don’t wait longer than two hours, Ince said, emphasizing that standard time period starts when food comes out of the oven, not when friends and family are finished with the holiday meal. The risk of bacteria growing on food increases if the food left out for more than two hours at room temperature, she said.

Be shallow
Be sure to store food in a shallow container. A deep dish will take longer to cool in the refrigerator, which must be below 40 degrees in temperature to reduce risk of bacteria growth, Ince said.

“If you cook a larger turkey that’s fine, but you need to have room in your refrigerator for other leftover items as well,” Ince said. “Keep enough for two or three days in your refrigerator, but if you have more than that you need to freeze it. Any longer unfrozen means a greater chance of bacteria growth as you take food in and out of the refrigerator for meals.”

Store gravy separately from other leftovers because bacteria love gravy. Make sure to reheat gravy to 165 degrees.

Use freezer-safe containers or freezer bags and turkey will last up to six months in the freezer, Ince said.

Safe sandwiches
Follow safeguards when preparing leftovers — especially the sides. While a cold turkey sandwich is ok to eat, Ince said, leftover dressing, casseroles and gravy should be reheated to 165 degrees internally to destroy any potential bacteria. Heating your oven to 325 degrees is a good benchmark for hitting this temperature inside the food.

For more information on food safety during the holidays, contact the Howard County Extension Office at 870-845-7517 or visit our office located on the second floor of the courthouse. If you have food safety questions on Thanksgiving Day, check out the website, Let’s Talk Turkey-USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service at

For more information about food safety, visit or contact your county extension office.

About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system. 

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.  

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services 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.   

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