The Lurking Dangers of Leftovers

The holiday season is quickly approaching, and it will likely look slightly different this year. There may be fewer people at the dinner table and on the backyard football team due to gathering restrictions. However, one aspect is sure to stick around: leftovers. Americans consumed an average of 3,000-4,500 calories per person on Thanksgiving in 2019, using upwards of 46 million turkeys. Despite this high food consumption, much goes to waste. Leftovers have become a significant part of holiday culture. One survey states that 73% of American adults agree that a fridge full of leftovers is the best thing about hosting Thanksgiving. Despite this love for leftovers, most people do not think about the importance of properly storing their holiday leftovers.

Foodborne Illness

The safe handling of leftovers is essential to prevent foodborne illness. Foodborne illness, also known as foodborne disease or food poisoning, happens when disease-causing germs contaminate food. When these germs contaminate the food, people get sick. Researchers have identified over 250 foodborne illnesses, and symptoms range from upset stomach and nausea to vomiting and diarrhea. While these are several of the most common symptoms, it is important to know when to seek medical attention when concerned about foodborne illness. An individual should see a doctor if they experience any of the following:

  • a fever greater than 102 °F
  • frequent vomiting preventing liquids from staying down
  • signs of dehydration including little or no urination
  • a very dry mouth and sore throat
  • feeling dizzy when standing up
  • diarrhea that lasts more than three days

Most people experience only mild symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. However, some may require hospitalization, and occasionally, illness results in long term health problems like arthritis or brain and nerve damage. The United States government estimates that around 48 million cases of foodborne illness occur annually, affecting 1 in 6 Americans each year. These illnesses also result in approximately 128,00 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year.

Safety with Leftovers

Keeping leftover food in airtight containers can help to prevent germ growth. RHN Team Picture Bank

Keeping leftover food in airtight containers can help to prevent germ growth.
RHN Team Picture Bank

Food preparation and cooking are primarily considered when attempting to avoid foodborne illness. The storing of leftovers is also an essential factor in preventing foodborne illness but may not be considered as often. This holiday season, there are several steps individuals can take to prevent foodborne illness while storing leftovers.

Before the Meal Ends: The safe storage of leftovers begins before the meal ends. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, it is important to keep food out of the “danger zone.” The danger zone refers to temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F that encourage the rapid growth of bacteria in food. Therefore, while eating, it is important to keep hot food at 140 °F. Monitoring the temperature of food helps prevent the start of dangerous bacterial growth while eating.

Dividing Leftovers: It is also necessary to pay close attention while food is cooling. Food should be cooled to 40 °F as quickly as possible to help prevent bacterial growth. Large amounts of food should be divided and stored in shallow containers. For example, a big pot of soup should be divided between multiple containers to cool more evenly and quickly, and whole roasts, hams, and turkeys should be cut or sliced into smaller pieces to refrigerate. Once separated, the leftovers should be wrapped well in airtight packaging or sealed in storage containers. This storage method helps to keep bacteria out, retain moisture, and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator.

Storing Leftovers: Finally, the leftovers should be immediately stored in the refrigerator or freezer for safekeeping. Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for three to four days and the freezer for three to four months. Technically frozen leftovers are safe indefinitely, but they will lose moisture and flavor the longer they are kept in the freezer.

The holiday season brings chaos to the minds of many, and most people are not thinking about their leftovers. However, not safely storing leftovers can lead to sickness that ranges from being inconvenient amidst the holiday season to life-threatening. Taking precautions by properly storing leftovers is a great way to help prevent sickness and keep holiday enjoyment alive.

For more information on foodborne illness and food safety, see:
HGIC 3740, Foodborne Illnesses: Bacteria
HGIC 3720, Foodborne Illnesses: Viruses
HGIC 3544, Food Safety for Community Suppers


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Food Poisoning Symptoms.
  2. (2020). Food poisoning. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.,128%2C000%20hospitalizations%20and%203%2C000%20deaths.
  3. Kiernan, J. S. (2019). Thanksgiving fun facts- Infographic with 61 facts. WalletHub.
  4. United States Department of Agriculture. (2020). Leftovers and Food Safety.,longer%20times%20in%20the%20freezer.&text=Safe%20ways%20to%20thaw%20leftovers,water%20and%20the%20microwave%20oven

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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