How Long Can Thanksgiving Dinner Sit Out?

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Cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful. One of the last things you want to worry about is whether or not the food is safe to eat. So, how long can Thanksgiving dinner sit out?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that perishable meals be stored in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking or within one hour if the temperature is 90 degrees or above. Perishable meal enters the “Danger Zone” after two hours when bacteria can rapidly grow and make the meal dangerous.

Thanksgiving dinner food , turkey, two corn on a cob, apple pie.

The “Danger Zone” is the temperature between 40 °F and 140 °F, where bacteria can double in number in as little as 20 minutes. A number of bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella Enteritidis, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Campylobacter, can develop to harmful levels in food if it is left out in the danger zone for an extended period of time.

Never keep your dinner out of the fridge for longer than two hours. Food shouldn’t be left out for more than an hour if the temperature is over 90 °F. Hot foods should be kept hot, at or above 140 °F. Put them in warming trays, steam tables that have been preheated, chafing dishes, and/or slow cookers. On the other hand, cold foods should be kept chilled at or below 40 °F.

How far in advance can you make Thanksgiving side dishes?

The turkey may be the show’s star, but it would not be Thanksgiving without all the delicious side dishes. While some side dishes can be made the night before, others are best when made fresh. So how far in advance can you make your Thanksgiving side dishes?

Stuffing can be made up to two days in advance and kept in the refrigerator. Simply stuff your bird on the day of and bake according to recipe instructions.

Mashed potatoes can also be made ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator for up to two days. On Thanksgiving Day, simply reheat them in a pot on the stove over low heat, stirring occasionally.

Cranberry sauce is one dish that is best made fresh, as it will only keep in the fridge for up to four days.

Sweet potato casserole with peacan nuts on top.

What Thanksgiving foods can be prepared ahead of time?

When it comes to preparing Thanksgiving dinner, the earlier, the better. Plenty of dishes can be made ahead of time, freeing up valuable oven and stove space on the big day. Here are some examples:

Casserole

Some foods, like a casserole of broccoli or green beans with cheddar, benefit from a day or two in the refrigerator. They get more taste as they marinade. Traditional dishes like sweet potato casserole can also be prepared in advance and stored in the refrigerator. If you’re planning ahead further, make some room in your freezer.

If you’re cooking a casserole with raw meat or seafood, fully cook it, let it cool, then wrap it in many layers of foil and plastic wrap before freezing it. You can prepare casseroles in advance and freeze them uncooked if they contain pre-cooked protein or don’t contain any meat.

Soup

Soup is a simple dish to prepare and freeze in advance. It makes a great appetizer to begin the meal or to feed the audience while dinner is being prepared. Make it a week or so ahead of time, freeze it, and thaw it the night before. Soups can be laid flat in your freezer to save room if they are frozen in ziplock bags.

Gravy

A recipe for catastrophe is rushing to cook your gravy as you take the turkey out of the oven. You may simply create your gravy a few days ahead of time if you’ve previously finished your turkey broth. Even some turkey drippings can be added while reheating as a finishing touch.

Desserts

Most of your favorite holiday sweets can be stored in the refrigerator or on the counter with a cover for one or two days. Pies, cookies, and cakes should be prepared many days (or, if you’re going to freeze pie, even a month) in advance of the feast. Any garnishes that won’t hold up well should be saved until just before serving.

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Turkey

Naturally, you shouldn’t cook the turkey in advance since it is the star of the night. But depending on how you intend to prepare the bird, there are a few other small jobs you can complete. If you intend to brine or dry brine your turkey, you can do it anywhere from one to three days beforehand. Alternatively, if you’re just brushing the bird with compound butter before roasting it, the butter can be prepared and kept for up to a week in the refrigerator or up to three months in the freezer.

Stacked containers of leftovers

How long can you keep Thanksgiving dinner in the refrigerator?

Generally, according to the Mayo Clinic, Thanksgiving leftovers and all other refrigerated leftovers should be consumed within three to four days. After that, the danger of food poisoning rises said the clinic.

So if you have any leftover turkey, it can be stored in the refrigerator for three to four days. Turkey can also be frozen for up to two months. Stuffing and gravy can be kept in the refrigerator for one to two days.

All other dishes should be eaten within two days of being cooked. This includes side dishes such as mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and green beans. If you have any leftovers that you know you will not eat within this time frame, consider freezing them for later.

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