Arkansas families love Thanksgiving. They cook a lot of food. Care should be taken in safely handling leftovers, according to experts.

The biggest mistake

The biggest mistake holiday eaters and cooks make is letting the banquet food sit around too long in the kitchen, said Jean Ince, County Extension Agent for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service in Howard County.

“They’ll wait and say, ‘I’m just going to sit down for just a little bit,’” Ince said. “They get too busy or they get tired and take a nap or something like that. People just do not realize that bacteria can grow and multiply rapidly.”

That’s why it’s so important to promptly refrigerate leftovers. Don’t wait longer than two hours, Ince said, emphasizing that standard time period starts when food comes out of the oven, not when friends and family are finished with the holiday meal. The risk of bacteria growing on food increases if the food left out for more than two hours at room temperature, she said.

Be shallow

Be sure to store food in a shallow container. A deep dish will take longer to cool in the refrigerator, which must be below 40 degrees in temperature to reduce risk of bacteria growth, Ince said.

“If you cook a larger turkey that’s fine, but you need to have room in your refrigerator for other leftover items as well,” Ince said. “Keep enough for two or three days in your refrigerator, but if you have more than that you need to freeze it. Any longer unfrozen means a greater chance of bacteria growth as you take food in and out of the refrigerator for meals.”

Store gravy separately from other leftovers because bacteria love gravy. Make sure to reheat gravy to 165 degrees.

Use freezer-safe containers or freezer bags and turkey will last up to six months in the freezer, Ince said.

Safe sandwiches

Follow safeguards when preparing leftovers — especially the sides. While a cold turkey sandwich is ok to eat, Ince said, leftover dressing, casseroles and gravy should be reheated to 165 degrees internally to destroy any potential bacteria. Heating your oven to 325 degrees is a good benchmark for hitting this temperature inside the food.

For more information about food safety, visit, contact a county extension office or the Howard County Extension Office at 870-845-7517. On Thanksgiving Day, visit Let’s Talk Turkey-USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service at .

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.

— Seth Blomeley is a correspondent for the U of A System Division of Agriculture