All good things must come to an end, including the holidays. But leftovers from your holiday celebrations can help stretch out your holiday cheer.
When the party is over and you’re cleaning up, it’s important to assess the safety of the foods that are leftover. If perishable foods (meat, poultry, cooked foods, cheese, cut up fruits and vegetables) were out for more than two hours, they should be discarded. If you kept hot foods hot (above 140°F), with chafing dishes, warming trays or slow cookers you will want to refrigerate any leftovers right away. Perishable foods that were not out for more than two hours, or that were kept on ice also can be saved. Prompt storage can prevent pathogenic bacteria that cause foodborne illness from growing in your leftovers. These bacteria have no odor and can’t be tasted or seen.
Leftovers should be stored in shallow pans or containers so that they cool down quickly. The quicker your leftovers cool, the less time they spend in the “Danger Zone” (40–140°F). Most leftovers will keep for about four days in your refrigerator. Use this Cold Storage Chart to keep track of foods in your refrigerator and freezer.
As you are putting food away, ask yourself if you can finish the leftovers in 4 days. If not, go ahead and package them for the freezer. Most cooked foods will keep their best quality for 2-4 months in the freezer. To protect your foods from the drying effects of the freezer, package them in heavy duty plastic containers, freezer bags, aluminum foil or freezer paper.
If you don’t know what to do with your leftovers, visit USDA’s What's Cooking? USDA Mixing Bowl. You’ll find safe and healthy recipes to use up leftover meat, poultry and other foods.
Consumers with questions about food safety can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist in English or Spanish at AskKaren.gov, available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday. AskKaren provides live chats as well as food safety information 24/7.