In the United States, 200 million pounds of turkey go to waste every year at Thanksgiving alone.
Simultaneously, 48 million Americans develop foodborne illnesses every year — and holiday meals are a notorious culprit for food poisoning and food safety problems.
It’s a challenge to keep food safe during the holidays while at the same time avoiding food waste when it comes to leftovers.
Properly packaging food keeps it fresh as long as possible, making your leftovers safe to eat and cutting down on food waste. This guide will show you how to package food to keep it safe and delicious throughout the holidays.
Cool Food Down Safely
It’s tempting to leave the buffet spread on the table all afternoon so that guests can help themselves to another plate. However, leaving food at room temperature is a dangerous practice that encourages bacteria to grow.
Here’s what to do instead:
Refrigerate Food Right Away
Contrary to popular belief, hot food can be placed directly in the fridge after the meal is over. Food that sits out at room temperature is in the “danger zone” of 40ºF to 140ºF: the range at which foodborne bacteria start to thrive in your leftovers.
The USDA recommends storing food leftovers within at least two hours of cooking, giving you the best chance to avoid food poisoning from foodborne bacteria.
Choose the Right Container to Cool Food
Larger food items take longer to cool down all the way through. Meaning that a big holiday dish, like a casserole or turkey breast, might stay warm even after it’s in the fridge — increasing the chance that food-poisoning-causing bacteria can find a home there.
It’s easy to prevent this by simply dividing big dishes into smaller portions that cool down faster. Try packaging your leftovers into meal-sized containers, ready to eat the following day.
If possible, choose a shallow dish to store your warm leftovers. They allow food to cool to a safe temperature quickly because of their large surface area.
When leftovers are exposed to air, it invites oxygen-dependent microorganisms like mold to feast on your holiday meal. Additionally, exposure to oxygen speeds up the chemical reactions that cause food breakdown — turning them brown and giving them a bad smell.
That’s why airtight packaging is the best choice for keeping leftovers fresh. There are several options for airtight food packaging to preserve your portions and keep them tasting fresh for their maximum life span.
Vacuum-sealed food packaging is the safest option for airtight food storage, and it comes in all shapes and sizes.
These food saver vacuum bags are available in a variety of sizes and are ideal for home use. Designed for food storage, they have textured channels that allow air to escape during vacuum sealing.
Twist-top containers are a reliable choice, especially for liquid leftovers, like gravy. A screw-on lid should provide an airtight seal that protects food from oxidation.
Twist -op containers come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. Those who want to avoid plastic can use mason jars; they are a versatile, plastic-free storage option that keeps your food tightly sealed.
Reclosable bags keep leftovers airtight for a quick and easy short term seal. Plus, they work well for both small and large portions because their large surface area allows food to cool down quickly.
Resealable bags work well for storing leftovers in the freezer. Try dividing leftovers into single-serving portions and freezing them in small resealable bags. They are easy to pull out of the freezer later and enjoy as a no-prep meal!
Plan Ahead, Reduce Waste
How long is too long to keep leftovers? Once stored in the fridge, food is safe to eat for up to three to four days. Any longer, and it’s risky to consume it. One study showed that over 30% of respondents overestimated how long they could safely store leftovers, leading them to eat food already past its prime.
It’s important to remember that food can be unsafe to eat even before it smells or looks off. When in doubt, check a reliable, safe storage time chart and use up your leftovers before they spoil!
With a little planning and creative thinking, it’s easy to use up your safely stored holiday leftovers.
From Leftovers to New Recipes
Instead of eating plate after plate of the same post-holiday meal, try remaking your stored food into something new. Classic leftovers recipes like turkey curry, turkey pot pie, and hot turkey sandwiches are delicious ways to repurpose up your leftovers before they pass their expiration date.
This clever hack has two advantages: First, it uses up the food that might otherwise go past its prime. But even better, it ensures leftovers heated through — getting rid of any bacteria that might have begun to grow.
Don’t forget to plan to freeze some of your leftovers! An excellent option for holiday meat, like turkey, that spoils quickly in the fridge but stays fresh in the freezer.
Food stored in the freezer will stay safe to eat indefinitely, but it will be at peak quality during the first three to four months. After that, it begins to lose freshness and flavor. Plan to pull your frozen turkey out within a few weeks and add it to a casserole, soup, or hash.
Keep Your Leftovers Safe This Holiday
The holidays bring joy as well as lots of challenges — but food poisoning shouldn’t be one of them. A great packaging strategy is the best way to make sure your food stays safe and enjoyable as long as possible.