Thanksgiving food, leftovers tips avoid food poisoning, keep them safe

Avoid the “danger zone” to make sure Thanksgiving food and leftovers are safe to eat.


There’s a special feeling in the air in the days before Thanksgiving.

Not only are we looking forward to gathering around the table with friends and family, but we’re anticipating with gluttonous fervor those special foods that seem to come around only during this time of year — made possible by those manning the kitchen!

And oh the food they’re roasting, mashing, baking and frying!

But once the day is over, many of us are left with plenty of leftovers since we seem to ignore suggestions on how best to calculate how much to actually buy and cook.

There are loads of websites offering ideas of what to do with those leftovers, from waffles made with stuffing to turkey sandwiches, turkey salad, turkey hash, turkey a la king or gallons of turkey soup. (Yes, some of this was paraphrased from the turkey disaster in “A Christmas Story.”)

Before you start pulling out all those leftovers to make your own creation, it’s important to keep food safety in mind, because who wants to spend the holiday in the bathroom or emergency room?

Do people really get sick from Thanksgiving leftovers?

They do.

According to Dr. Matthew Shannon, a University of Florida Health emergency medicine physician, the holidays often bring an uptick in foodborne illness to the emergency department.

How to make sure Thanksgiving leftovers are safe to eat

Keith Schneider, a University of Florida food safety expert, shared his top tips for meals that minimize the chances you’ll find yourself in the emergency room:

  • Keep cooked foods out of the “danger zone.”

“Bacteria multiply between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But since most people aren’t monitoring those temperatures closely, you want to be sure to refrigerate any leftovers within two hours of being cooked or being removed from the heating source,” Schneider said.

“The clock starts once the temperature drops below 140 degrees.”

  •  For foods that are served cold, the same “danger zone” applies.

“Your refrigerator is typically set at 38 to 40 degrees. Any of the pathogens of concern are not going to grow below 40 degrees. So, when you take out, say, a salad or a pumpkin roll with cream cheese filling, that also shouldn’t spend more than two hours above 40 degrees,” Schneider said.

“But the higher the temperature outside the refrigerator, the shorter the time it should be out. Here in Florida, we can have some warm, humid holidays — be aware when you’re eating dinner on the back porch and shorten that time out of the fridge.”

  • Use shallow containers to ensure adequate airflow and even cooling.

To provide for maximum cooling in the refrigerator, allow hot items to cool first and don’t stack everything.

“If you stack everything, and you have a holiday load of food going into the refrigerator, it could take hours and you could literally heat up the whole refrigerator,” Schneider said.

  • Most items can go into either the refrigerator or the freezer.

If you don’t think you’ll eat something within the next three to four days, freeze it.

  • The “smell test” isn’t good enough.

“Pathogens typically don’t grow to a density where they’re going to have an odor,” Schneider said.

“The odor typically occurs from spoilage. So, if it smells bad, of course, don’t eat it. But if it’s been a few days and still smells fine, it still may not be safe. As I often say, ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’”

  • Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Take out what you plan to eat and make sure to heat it to 165 degrees.

  • Minimize heat-thaw cycles.

Since you can’t heat foods that are served cold to kill pathogens, make sure they’re in sealed containers to avoid cross-contamination. Remember, every time they’re removed from the refrigerator, it gives pathogens an opportunity to grow.

  • Your leftover turkey sandwich is fine cold, if you cooked it properly the first time.

“As long as your turkey and other ingredients were cooked and stored properly, the pathogens aren’t going to magically grow,” Schneider said.

“If you’re worried about it, sure, you can heat the turkey and have a warm sandwich. But taking those steps in the preparation, cooking and storing process means you should be safe to enjoy a cold leftover turkey sandwich.”

Tips to help prevent food poisoning or foodborne illness at Thanksgiving

The Centers for Disease Control offers these suggestions to help prevent food poisoning or foodborne illnesses over the holiday:

Keep foods separated. Keep meat, chicken, turkey, seafood, and eggs separate from all other foods. Prevent juices from meat, chicken, turkey, and seafood from dripping or leaking onto other foods by keeping them in containers or sealed plastic bags. Store eggs in their original carton in the main compartment of the refrigerator.

Cook food thoroughly. Use a food thermometer to make sure meat, chicken, turkey, seafood, and eggs have been cooked to a safe internal temperature to kill germs. For both turkey and ham, that’s 165 degrees. And that goes for heating leftovers, too.

Keep food out of the “danger zone.” Bacteria can grow rapidly in the danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees. After food is prepared, keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Refrigerate or freeze perishable food within two hours.

Use pasteurized eggs for dishes containing raw eggs.

Do not eat raw dough or batter.

Thaw your turkey safely. Thaw turkey in the refrigerator, in a sink of cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Do not thaw turkey or other foods on the counter. 

Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.

What are the symptoms of food poisoning? 

Foodborne illnesses can cause severe symptoms, can lead to hospitalization and, in extreme cases, can be fatal, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The most common symptoms of food poisoning are:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain or cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever

Should you see a doctor if you suspect food poisoning?

The CDC suggests seeing a doctor if you have any symptoms that are severe, including:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than 3 days
  • High fever of over 102 degrees
  • Vomiting so often that you cannot keep liquids down
  • Signs of dehydration, which include not urinating much, a dry mouth and throat, feeling dizzy when standing up

See your doctor if you are pregnant and have a fever and other flu-like symptoms. Some mild infections can cause problems with pregnancy.

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