How to Store Thanksgiving Leftovers to Keep Them Fresh

From turkey to pumpkin pie, here's what you should keep in the refrigerator, what can be frozen, and how long the leftovers will last.

Thanksgiving Leftovers in Containers on White Wood
Photo: Maren Caruso / GETTY IMAGES

After several hours (or days) of cooking Thanksgiving dinner, storing leftovers is likely the last thing on your mind. However, if you'd like to get the most out of your hard work, learning how to properly store Thanksgiving leftovers is essential. Not only will this help reduce food waste, but it will ensure you can enjoy each dish after the festivities are over.

Regardless of what's on your Thanksgiving menu, all leftovers should be stored in the refrigerator within two hours of being cooked or heated. After two hours at room temperature, food will enter the temperature danger zone (between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit), where harmful bacteria can quickly grow and multiply to unsafe amounts. This will increase the risk of foodborne illness, ultimatly putting a damper on the holiday season.


A traditional Thanksgiving dinner isn't complete without turkey, and it's quite likely that you'll have leftovers—but putting the whole turkey in the fridge and calling it a day is not the best approach. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it's best to separate the meat into smaller portions to ensure the turkey cools efficiently in the refrigerator. You should also eat it within three to four days, which won't be difficult if you make leftover turkey sandwiches.

Leftover turkey can also be frozen, says Kimberly Baker, Ph.D., RD, LD, director of the Clemson Extension Food Systems and Safety Program Team. Use freezer-safe bags or containers and "limit air space in the package to prevent freezer burn," she says. Another option is to wrap the turkey in aluminum foil, followed by plastic wrap. "The aluminum foil helps prevent freezer burn and the plastic wrap helps retain moisture," explains Baker. Frozen leftover turkey will last indefinitely, according to the USDA—but for best quality and flavor, use it within four to six months, says Baker.


If ham is your go-to entrée for Thanksgiving, store leftovers in small portions in the refrigerator for three to five days. During this time, you can enjoy plenty of recipes that use leftover ham. You can also freeze ham for one to two months, though the quality and taste will deteriorate quickly. If you must freeze leftover ham, follow the same guidelines as leftover turkey and use freezer-safe containers with minimal air space.


When it comes to Thanksgiving stuffing (or dressing), storage depends on your recipe's ingredients. "In general, the shelf-life of stuffing is seven days from the day of preparation if [it's] stored in a refrigerator," notes Baker. But if the stuffing contains ingredients that were prepared before you cooked the stuffing, the shelf-life will be seven days after that ingredient was prepared. For example, let's say you prepared sausage on November 21, then used the sausage to make stuffing on November 24. The sausage stuffing should be eaten or tossed by November 28 (i.e., seven days after you cooked the sausage), rather than December 1, says Baker.

Mashed and Scalloped Potatoes

According to the USDA, cooked potato dishes (like mashed and scalloped potatoes) should be stored in the refrigerator for three to four days. Freezing them is trickier—when potatoes are frozen, the water and starch separate, causing the dish to become watery when reheated. If you must freeze potato sides, experts at Pennsylvania State University recommend forming mashed potatoes into 1/2-inch thick patties, freezing them on a cookie sheet, then storing in a freezer-safe container. Scalloped potatoes can be covered with moisture-resistant paper and frozen in their baking dish. Thaw and eat the leftovers within two to four weeks, if not sooner.

Vegetable Sides

According to the USDA, cooked vegetables of any kind should be stored in the refrigerator for three to four days. It's generally not recommended to freeze cooked vegetable sides as freezing can ruin their quality and texture. This is especially true if your dish contains a creamy sauce or breaded toppings, such as in green bean casserole.

Cranberry Sauce and Gravy

Store leftover gravy and sauce, including cranberry sauce, in the refrigerator in plastic or glass storage containers with a tight-fitting lid, says Baker. Gravy should be eaten within three to four days (it's delightful in soup or shepherd's pie) or frozen in an air-tight container for four to six months, according to the USDA. As for leftover cranberry sauce? Use it within three to four days, beside turkey sandwiches cranberry sauce is great in parfaits or baked goods—or freeze it an air-tight container for up 12 months.


According to Baker, pies made with custard or eggs (such as pumpkin pie or pecan pie) should be covered and refrigerated for seven days. And while custard pies won't fair well in the freezer, pies with eggs can be frozen for about two months, though the fillings might separate.

As for fruit pies made with sugar, like apple pie? You can store them covered at room temperature for one or two days, but they'll last much longer (about seven days) in the refrigerator, says Baker. To freeze, place in the freezer until frozen, then wrap with plastic and eat within four months.

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