7th December, 20205 min read

Holiday leftovers: How long can you keep food over the festive season?

Medical reviewer:
Healthily's medical team
Healthily's medical team
Natalie Psaila
Natalie Psaila
Last reviewed: 02/12/2020
Medically reviewed

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Sometimes the best part of all the great food over the holiday season is the leftovers – think turkey and stuffing sandwiches and no cooking needed.

Of course, it’s good to know how best to store your extra food and how long it’s safe to keep – all those leftovers won’t be worth it if you get ill from eating them.

If you’ve amassed a lot of leftovers after a feast for Christmas or Diwali, Thanksgiving or Hanukkah, or another of the many holidays celebrated at this time of year, let’s take a look at how you can safely taste that soup grandma made again, even a few months after the party has ended.

How long can I keep leftovers?

All food will eventually go bad even if kept in the best possible conditions. Generally, food in the fridge only stays at its freshest for around 2 days.

Frozen food, on the other hand, can be used for a long time and is typically at its best for 3 to 6 months.

Most foods can be stored in a freezer, including:

  • turkey, meat and fish, including your festive roast
  • dough-based items, including holiday cakes, bread and samosas
  • eggs
  • most dairy products, such as cheese boards, yoghurts and milk
  • vegetable recipes, like sweet potato casserole, onion bhajis and latkes
  • cooked rice

Food should be stored in an airtight container or freezer bag. When it’s time to eat it again, make sure any food is thoroughly defrosted and reheated (so that it’s steaming all the way through) – this is especially important for rice.

Once defrosted or reheated, leftovers can’t be frozen again safely.

Open freezer with leftovers inside

How should I store leftovers?

To be safe, you should try to cool and pop food in the fridge or freezer as quickly as possible once you’re ready to store it, ideally within 90 minutes of cooking. This might mean getting the family’s help to clear the table a bit quicker after your feast, but it’ll be worth it to enjoy all those tasty leftovers later.

There are several things you’ll need to take care of when you decide to save food for later, including:

  • placing portions in individual containers or freezer bags – this way you can easily reheat just what you need without wasting the extra food
  • checking that your refrigerator is at 5°C or lower – this is the best temperature for keeping food fresh
  • keeping your refrigerator and freezer clean and well-maintained – if you’re playing fridge jenga over the holidays, it’s best to keep everything labelled with dates so you know when food is past its best

Why should I store leftovers safely?

If leftover food isn’t stored correctly, bacteria can grow on it and make you sick from food poisoning.

You can get food poisoning by eating items that haven’t been stored correctly or are past their ‘use by’ date. It’s good to take note of labels and make sure you only eat food that’s still fresh enough to eat.

For festive leftovers, note down the date when you store them so you’ll know when they’re past their best. You could keep a list or label tupperwares when you put them in the fridge or freezer so the whole family can easily check if things are still good to eat.

Young woman sitting on sofa and touching her tummy, in pain

How will I know I’ve got food poisoning? What should I do?

Food poisoning can make you feel quite ill – some of the common symptoms are:

  • nausea and vomiting - being sick or feeling sick
  • diarrhoea
  • having pains or cramps in your tummy

If you’re experiencing the symptoms of food poisoning, you'll need to drink plenty of water and get lots of rest. Avoid any alcohol and fatty or spicy foods, too.

Once you start feeling a bit better, it’s best to snack on plain foods, such as bananas, toast and rice.

When to see a doctor

If you get any of the following symptoms, it’s important that you see a doctor:

  • fever
  • blood in your poo
  • dehydration – this means you don’t have enough water in your system. If you’re thirsty, have dark pee or a dry mouth then you might be dehydrated

You should also see a doctor if you remain sick with these symptoms for more than 2 days, although diarrhoea can last for 7 days.

Woman washing hands with soap

Prevent the spread of infection

You should also avoid spreading an infection to others, and can help to prevent this by:

  • washing your hands with soap and water frequently
  • washing any clothing or bedding that has poo or vomit on it separately on a hot wash
  • cleaning toilet seats, flush handles, taps, surfaces and door handles every day
  • preparing food for just yourself, not for other people, if possible
  • not sharing towels, flannels, cutlery or utensils
  • avoiding swimming pools until 2 weeks after the symptoms stop

You should also avoid going to work or school until you have not been sick or had diarrhoea for at least 2 days.

Key points

  • it’s important to store leftovers safely to avoid getting sick
  • food keeps well for 2 days in the fridge, but up to 3 to 6 months in a freezer
  • label your leftovers when you put them away so you’ll know if they’re still good to eat
  • always reheat frozen food thoroughly before serving
  • seek help from a doctor if you’re sick with food poisoning for more than 2 days or if you’re concerned about any of the symptoms listed above
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