Food safety expert provides tips for preserving Thanksgiving foods

Thanksgiving should be a meal that is safely enjoyed with family and friends and Virginia Tech experts have some tips to ensure holiday classics are safely enjoyed in the days and weeks that follow.

“It’s important to keep food out of the danger zone, which is the temperature between 41 and 135 degrees,” said Alexis Hamilton, a postdoctoral associate and incoming assistant professor  of food processing microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Food Science and Technology. “It’s important that foods pass through this range as quickly as possible. Basically, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.”

Hamilton recommends the following tips to ensure food safety: 

  • If you are working with foods fresh from the oven or stove, once removed and placed on the table or tray, there are about four hours to consume, store, or reheat. For foods that were kept in the refrigerator, the time increases to six hours. At that point, a decision must be made to eat, store, or throw out the remaining foods.

  • For storing hot foods, it’s important to let them cool a bit before placing them in either the fridge or freezer, Hamilton said.

  • A general rule of thumb, regardless of the type of food, is to toss those leftovers within three to four days of being placed in the fridge. That is, if your leftovers last that long. 

While this isn’t a lot of time, Hamilton has some methods to maximize leftovers.

“One trick I like to use is to put meals onto plates and place the amount for a few days in the fridge and put the rest in the freezer, where the foods will safely keep for a few months,” she said.

The longer that foods are in the freezer, the more moisture evaporation will occur. While the food is safe to eat anywhere from one to three months, the taste will not be the same when stored for that length of time.

“If you like Thanksgiving foods the best after a few weeks, I would suggest that you freeze the meal on Thanksgiving Day and defrost it when you want to eat it,” Hamilton said.

Safe storage times of popular Thanksgiving foods when stored and sealed properly with airtight heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap, or freezer paper; or when placed the package inside a plastic storage bag:

  • Cooked poultry: Three to four days in the fridge, four months in the freezer
  • Cooked meat: Three to four days in the fridge, two to three months in the freezer
  • Cooked fish: Three to four days in the fridge, four to six months in the freezer
  • Cooked ham: Three to four days if sliced, a week if whole in the fridge. Cooked ham lasts one to two months in the freezer.
  • Cooked bacon: Lasts up to a week in the fridge and two to three months in the freezer.
  • Macaroni and cheese: Three to four days in the fridge and up to two months in the freezer.
  • Casserole-style foods: Three to four days in the fridge and up to four months in the freezer.

If food has been stored for longer than the FDA-recommended times, there are some warning signs that the food has gone bad:

  • Has a weird taste
  • Has a funny texture
  • Smells abnormal
  • Has something growing on it

“When in doubt, throw it out,” Hamilton said. 

For specific safekeeping times, Hamilton suggests the FDA’s refrigerator and freezer storage chart. Hamilton also recommends the USDA’s Foodkeeper app, which provides guidance on the safe handling, preparation, and storage of foods. The app offers specific storage timelines for the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry for various products including meat, poultry, produce, seafood, dairy products and eggs, and more.