Great Ways to Use Holiday Leftovers

KFB turkey and black bean quesalilla

The holidays often feature big meals that leave us with tasty leftovers to enjoy for days to come. But even delicious leftovers can start to feel ho-hum after awhile. 

Registered dietitian Karen Hanson offers some pointers to keep food—and recipes—fresh and healthy! So, go boldly beyond turkey casserole and ham sandwiches with these tips. 

Turkey and Black Bean Quesadillas  and  Quick Ham and Beans  are two  of my favorite ways to use up holiday leftovers,” Karen says. 

Not only are they delicious, they’re also healthy! 

“Great Northern Beans work well with ham and are a good source of additional, low-fat protein,” she says. “Pairing turkey with whole-wheat tortillas and salsa helps you enjoy holiday foods while incorporating whole grains and colorful, low-fat vegetables into a smart holiday eating plan.”  

While holiday leftovers make quick and tasty meals, Karen cautions it’s important to follow USDA guidelines for promptly refrigerating and properly reheating foods to ensure your food is safe. 

“Harmful bacteria can grow in perishable foods within two hours,” she notes. “After that time, make sure to refrigerate leftovers at 40° F or below to reduce the risk of foodborne illness in your family and friends.”

Tips for Leftovers

Promptly Refrigerate or Freeze Perishable Leftovers

You can’t tell just by looking at or smelling your leftovers whether harmful bacteria have started growing. Here are a few steps you can take to store and reheat your leftovers safely: 

  • To cool leftovers quickly, divide the food into small portions. Store each portion in shallow, covered containers in the refrigerator. 
  • Use refrigerated leftovers within three to four days and frozen food within four months. 
  • Avoid overloading the refrigerator because cold air needs room to circulate. 

Bacteria spread fastest at temperatures between 40-140° F, so chilling food safely reduces the risk of foodborne illness. Refrigerate or freeze cooked poultry and stuffing within two hours of cooking. 

Reheat Leftovers Thoroughly

When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach 165° F. Always use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the food. 

  • Reheat sauces, soups and gravies by bringing them to a rolling boil. 
  • Cover leftovers to reheat. This retains moisture and ensures that food will heat all the way through. 
  • Thaw frozen leftovers safely in the refrigerator or the microwave oven. When thawing leftovers in a microwave, continue to heat until they reach 165° F as measured with a food thermometer. 
  • In a real hurry? It’s safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing. Soups or stews can be reheated in a saucepan or microwave. Casseroles and combination meals do well in the oven or microwave. Just remember to allow some extra time—reheating frozen foods will take longer, but it’s safe if you forgot to take something out to thaw first! 

When in Doubt, Throw It Out

For a handy reference, the following cooked foods will last in the refrigerator up to the number of days listed: 

  • Cooked vegetables: 3-4 days 
  • Pasta: 3-4 days 
  • Rice: 7 days 
  • Deli meats: 5 days 
  • Ham: 3-4 days 
  • Beef, poultry or pork: 3-4 days 
  • Gravy: 1-2 days 
  • Stuffing: 1-2 days 
  • Seafood: 2 days 
  • Soups, stews or casseroles: 3-4 days