The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Savoring Leftovers… Food Safety for the Holidays

Savoring Leftovers… Food Safety for the Holidays

Dietitian Dialogues

November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving has come and gone, and many of your consumers may be wondering how long those leftovers can last in the fridge or freezer. Proper storage can extend the shelf life of food but not indefinitely. Refrigerated food slows the growth of bacteria, but it does not stop growth entirely, which inevitably results in food spoiling over time. Spoiled foods don’t always cause illness. However, pathogenic bacteria that may be present in food naturally can multiply or become dangerous if they are not handled, prepared or stored properly. 

From the farm to the table there are many opportunities for foods to become contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. Some pathogens are present in foods before handling. For example, Salmonella can be present in eggs that were laid by a hen infected with Salmonella. Some foods can be contaminated during processing. Any food can become contaminated during storage or preparation if it comes into contact with a source of contamination. For some foods that don’t require cooking, caution for cross-contamination is extremely important in the prevention of foodborne illness. 

Cooking most foods and leftovers to 165 °F can kill parasites, viruses, and bacteria. But even foods that have been cooked sufficiently or other non-cooked perishable foods can become unsafe to eat if left at room temperature for two hours or longer. Foods kept at temperatures between 40° and 140° F degrees are considered to be in the “danger zone,” because this temperature range is ideal for bacterial growth. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one bacterium that reproduces by dividing itself every half hour can produce 17 million progeny in 12 hours – a shocking statistic.

During the holidays when celebrations are focused around food, simple steps can be taken to protect against foodborne illness. On the buffet line, hot foods must be held at temperatures above 140 degrees and cold foods need to be held below 40 degrees to slow dangerous bacterial growth. Foods that cannot be properly held at these safe temperatures must be discarded after two hours or eaten at risk. 

Consumers play an important first step in preventing foodborne illness by preparing and storing foods safely, and, as retailers, you have a role to play too. Here are some great food safety tips that you can share with your consumers this bountiful holiday season.

Food Safety & Storage Tips

  • Wash your hands before preparing, cooking, serving and eating foods.
  • Foods that are meant to be eaten hot should be served and held at safe hot temperatures, typically above 140° F, and chilled foods should be kept at temperatures below 40° F to reduce bacterial growth.
  • Two-Hour Rule: Prepared foods should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. Discard any food left out for more than two hours.
  • One-Hour Rule applies to all foods that are served at temperatures above 90 ° F.
  • Defrost and marinate meat in the refrigerator. Even if you live in a cold climate, do not defrost outside. Stable cold temperatures are the safest, and the outdoor environment can be a source of other contaminants.
  • Use a cooking thermometer to check internal temperatures of cooked meats.
  • Place meat items on the lowest shelf in the fridge to minimize leakage and contamination of other foods below.
  • If recipes call for raw or uncooked eggs, you can modify them by cooking the egg mixture on the stovetop to 160 °F.
  • Store foods in leak-proof containers like Tupperware, plastic bags, etc. Use shallow containers to store foods until serving. Smaller containers can cool down more quickly and can heat up more rapidly and evenly.
  • Don’t overload the refrigerator or freezer. Air needs to circulate freely in order to cool foods effectively.
  • Remember: Harmful and pathogenic bacteria cannot be smelled or tasted. Prevention is safe food handling.

ALWAYS Implement the 4 rules of safe food: 
1.    Cook foods thoroughly at proper temperatures.
2.    Separate foods to avoid cross-contamination.
3.    Chill leftovers promptly to avoid bacterial growth.
4.    Clean and wash fresh produce thoroughly to remove dirt and outer layers of fruits and vegetables that may have come in contact with contaminants. 

Leftover Food Safety Guidelines


Food Item Leftovers  
  Fridge (40°F or below) Freezer (0°F or below)
Cooked meat items (poultry, ham, beef)  3 - 4 days  2 - 6 months
Cooked fish, all  3 - 4 days  1 - 2 months
Rotisserie Chicken  3 - 4 days  4 months
Shrimp, scallops, mussels  1 - 2 days  3 months
Stuffing (cooked)  3  4 days  1 month
Gravy  1 - 2 days  Not recommended
Fresh Vegetables
-Herbs (cilantro, basil)
1 - 2 months
- 2 months
- 3 weeks
- 4 - 5 days
- 3 - 7 days
- 1 - 2 weeks
- 4 - 5 days
- 7 - 10 days
 Not recommended
Pizza  3 - 4 days  1 - 2 months
Prepared salads (egg, chicken, ham, macaroni)  3 - 5 days  N/A
Luncheon meat (cold cuts)  3 - 5 days (open package)

  2 weeks (unopened)
 1 - 2 months
Soups & Stews (vegetable + meat)  3 - 4 days  2 - 3 months
Dips (sour cream based)  3 - 4 days  2 weeks
Olives  2 weeks  Not recommended
Egg substitutes
- 10 days
- 3 days
 Not recommended
-soft (Brie)
-hard (Cheddar, Swiss)
- 1 week (opened)
- 3 - 4 weeks opened
 6 months
Cream Cheese  2 weeks  Not recommended
Pumpkin pie  3 - 4  days  1 - 2 months
Cheesecake  1 week  2 - 3 months
Cookie Dough  Use by date (opened or unopened)  2 months
United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service




Additional Resources

Holiday Food Safety Success Kit, Partnership for Food Safety

Kitchen Companion: Your Safe Food Handbook, USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS).

Fun Food Safety Labels:

Contact Phone Numbers for Food Safety Questions:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-MPHotline (888-674-6854). The TTY number for the hearing impaired is 800-256-7072.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Information Line at 888-SAFE-FOOD.

Barbara Ruhs, MS, RD, LDN is the Registered Dietitian for Bashas’ Family of Stores. As Bashas’ in-house dietitian, Ruhs helps grocery shoppers in Arizona make healthier choices to improve their waistlines, wallets and overall well being.


As a nutritionist working for a supermarket, you have a unique outlook on how retailers are increasing health awareness at the store level and the kind of questions that shoppers ask. Each month, we'll be featuring a guest column, written by a nutritionist, that communicates this point of view on a variety of topics. And we want to hear from you. If you are a supermarket nutritionist interested in sharing your perspective and insights, we would love to help you share your thoughts! Please contact Allison Bloom at