What's that growing in the refrigerator?!? A guide for storing and eating leftovers

Originally Published: December 13, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 24, 2010
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Alice,

How long can meat such as Thanksgiving turkey be kept in the refrigerator and still be good to eat?

Leftover lover

Dear Leftover lover,

Enjoying holiday leftovers is a favorite tradition. However, food-borne illness resulting from eating leftovers long past their prime can dampen holiday cheer. Typical symptoms of food-borne illness, caused by bacteria, include abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Two different families of bacteria are found in food: pathogenic bacteria and spoilage bacteria.

    Pathogenic bacteria cause food-borne illness. Leaving food out at room temperature (about 72° F or 22° C) for extended periods of time encourages growth of these types of pathogens. These bacteria grow rapidly when in the "danger zone," which is between 40° to 140° F (4 to 60° C). They are difficult to detect, because they don't affect the taste, smell, or appearance of food. Safe food handling and proper food storage are the best defenses against pathogenic bacteria. For detailed instructions on how to keep food safe for consumption, check out the Partnership for Food Safety Education web site.

    Spoilage bacteria can grow at lower temperatures, such as ones found in refrigerators. These bacteria cause food to taste, look, and/or smell badly. Most of the time, spoilage bacteria won't cause illness, but they do make food much less appealing to eat.

Leftovers need to be kept in airtight containers recommended for reuse and food storage in the refrigerator and/or freezer. Leftovers can also be wrapped in two layers of plastic wrap and/or foil or in a plastic storage bag (with the food inside wrapped in a layer of plastic wrap or foil) to maintain moisture and prevent absorption of odors from other foods. When freezing leftovers, adding freezer tape also helps keep air and moisture out, and protects from freezer burn. Here are some safe time limits for keeping some common meat and poultry leftovers:

Food Item

Refrigerator Storage Temp.
(40° F / 4° C)

Freezer Storage Temp.
(0° F / -18° C)

Cooked turkey or chicken, plain

3 to 4 days

4 months

Cooked turkey or chicken dishes

3 to 4 days

4 to 6 months

Turkey or meat broth, gravy

1 to 2 days

2 to 3 months

Lunch meat

Unopened, 2 weeks
After opened, 3 to 5 days

1 to 2 months

Cooked fried chicken

3 to 4 days

4 months

Cooked chicken nuggets or patties

1 to 2 days

1 to 3 months

Cooked meat and meat casseroles

3 to 4 days

2 to 3 months

For more information on the safe keeping of most foods, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service web site or call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1.800.535.4555. Enjoy your holiday meal today, tomorrow, and the next day,

Alice