The Ultimate Guide to Thanksgiving Leftovers

This post has lots of tips for reducing Thanksgiving waste, information on how long it is safe to eat Thanksgiving leftovers, how to properly store and freeze leftover Turkey and Ham, and how to donate Thanksgiving leftovers. You’ll also find a great selection of recipes that can be made using your leftover Thanksgiving Turkey, Ham, and Cranberry Sauce

thanksgiving leftovers

This is the time of year where we tend to go all out on our meals. It’s a holiday and we’re with family after all. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be conscientious about getting the most for our money.

Thanksgiving is a time full of lots of food and unfortunately, with that much food on the table there is also much that can go to waste.

When scouting the deal for Thanksgiving groceries, consider purchasing a turkey larger than you actually need when the deal is right. You can get many meals out of leftover turkey meat to stretch out and already good bargain.

Here are a few tips to help you be mindful about your Holiday table this Thanksgiving.

What to do with Thanksgiving Leftovers

  • Send Thanksgiving leftovers home with friends and family.
  • Host a Thanksgiving Leftovers party and invite neighbors and friends to bring their leftovers for all to share. You might find some really fun new recipes this way!
  • Freeze what you can’t eat and eat it later.
  • Create a new recipe using leftover Turkey to enjoy something different.
  • Donate your Thanksgiving leftovers or unused ingredients.

Can You Donate Thanksgiving Leftovers?

Some food pantries may take your Thanksgiving leftovers. Check the Food Bank Listings to find a food bank near you; you can use the website to search by state or zip code. Give them a call ahead of time and ask them if they only accept canned and packaged items or if they are willing to accept Thanksgiving leftovers.

Homeless shelters and other non-profit charities in your area might also accept donations of this kind. It is always best to call ahead before arriving with the food.

If you have a regular homeless person you pass on your commute to work or near shops or other areas you frequent, you might consider packaging up some of your leftovers to offer them.

If you choose to donate Thanksgiving Leftovers, it is very important that they be donated as soon as possible so that they are fresh. Never donate leftovers that have been sitting in your refrigerator for days as this could compromise someone’s health.

Donating Ingredients During the Holiday Season

Here is some other guidance regarding what to donate to Food Banks during the holiday season. This is great, especially if you have leftover ingredients (such as canned pumpkin or yams, canned green beans, etc) that you did not use for your meal and don’t need to keep in your pantry.

For fresh produce donations, check out Ample Harvest, a non-profit that helps connect you with a food pantries that accept fresh produce donations.

How Long is It Safe to Eat Thanksgiving Leftovers?

How long you can keep your leftovers after Thanksgiving depends on a few things: what is the item, did it sit out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours before being stored, and was it stored properly?

Thanksgiving Leftovers Storage Guide

  • Leftover Turkey: 3-4 days refrigerated, 2-4 months frozen
  • Leftover Ham: 3-4 days refrigerated, 2-4 months frozen
  • Leftover Mashed Potatoes: 3-5 days refrigerated, 4-6 months frozen
  • Leftover Stuffing: 3-5 days refrigerated, 2-4 months frozen
  • Leftover Sweet Potatoes: 3-5 days refrigerated, 2-4 months frozen
  • Leftover Green Beans: 3-5 days refrigerated, 2-4 months frozen
  • Leftover Cranberry Sauce: 7-10 days refrigerated, 2-4 months frozen
  • Leftover Green Beans: 3-5 days refrigerated, 2-4 months frozen

Some items may actually “last” longer in the freezer than the above listed time, but these are the optimal storage lengths so that the food still tastes fresh and hasn’t had too much risk of drying out.

When Should You Throw Out Thanksgiving Leftovers?

In general, most of your Thanksgiving leftovers will be perfectly safe for around 3 – 5 days when stored in the refrigerator, some a little longer.

You will want to throw away any Thanksgiving leftovers after around the 7 day mark, or any time before that if the items start to smell funny or bad, have discolored, or if they sat out for longer than 2 hours at room temperature.

Leftovers that have sat out longer than 2 hours are room temperature are much more at risk for bacterial growth, which could then lead to food poisoning.

How Can You Tell if Turkey Has Gone Bad?

Signs of turkey spoilage include:

  • discoloration or dull or “off” appearance
  • texture changes (such as feeling slimy)
  • bad smell.

Usually your sense of smell is a really good indicator if the turkey is spoiled or not. Spoiled and bad smelling turkey will often trigger the gag reflex – a sure sign that the turkey has gone bad.

Do not taste the turkey first to decide if it has gone bad. If your turkey has indeed spoiled, you could get sick from eating spoiled turkey. When in doubt, throw it out!

Tips for Freezing Leftover Turkey:

If you are unable to consume the leftovers within 3-4 days, you will need to freeze it for a later use so it does not go to waste.

Package it within a timely matter 

From the time you remove it from the oven, you have around two hours to serve and refrigerate or freeze the leftover turkey before multiplying bacteria becomes a concern. I like quart sized freezer quality Ziploc bags for packaging my leftover turkey.

  1. Remove all of the air from your bags – that’s what causes freezer burn and no one wants that. Check out Jessica’s quick tip for sealing food without air in freezer bags.
  2. Label and date the packages.
  3. Include the amount of meat contained in the bag for easy recipe reference.

How Long Does Leftover Frozen Turkey Last

When you store leftover turkey in the freezer it will stay good for a long time as long as the freezer is kept at optimal temperatures and there are no power outages that would cause the turkey to thaw or partially thaw.

However, for best results you will want to use up any leftover frozen turkey within 2 – 4 months for best quality. After that time, the flavor of the turkey can degrade, it can become freezer burnt, or simply just dry out.

Can You Freeze Leftover Ham?

Yes, cooked ham freezes well! If you have leftover ham after your meal, slice it up and wrap it in aluminum foil. Store the foil-wrapped ham packets in a freezer bag and freeze. Make sure you remove as much air as possible from the bag.

The reason that I like to wrap the ham in foil first, is because it makes it easy to take a little out at a time to thaw for sandwiches, soups, and more, but you can also freeze it without the foil as long as your use airtight bags or containers.

I recommend following the same safety guidelines for frozen leftover turkey when you freeze ham.

How to Avoid Waste on Thanksgiving

  • Don’t take more than you really need.
  • Start with smaller portions and go back for seconds if you’re still hungry.
  • Package leftovers properly.
  • Create new recipes out of leftovers if you’re tired of eating Thanksgiving food.
  • Freeze what you can’t eat within the allotted safe to eat thanksgiving leftovers period.
Brining a turkey in this Rosemary Beer Brine will tenderize the meat and infuse it with a TON of flavor for Turkey Day! Check out this recipe for lots of tips on how to brine and roast a turkey.

Be Mindful of your Eating on Thanksgiving

Rather than filling your plate with a full portion of every dish on the table (and more food that you can comfortably eat), start off by taking a small helping of the dishes that you’d like to eat.

If you’re still hungry, or have room for a little bit more of that favorite side dish of you’re go ahead and go back for seconds.

Plates that are filled more than they should be often result uneaten food that is later chucked down the garbage disposal, not to mention upset stomachs.

Let’s face it: that’s wasteful – and a teensy bit rude too if you’re a guest at someone else’s table.

What to Make with Thanksgiving Leftovers

Thanksgiving often yields a lot of leftovers! Here are some great ideas to use leftover turkey and leftover cranberry sauce.

Leftover Turkey Recipes For Lunch

When you're tired of reheating plates of leftovers from your big feast for lunch day after day, take a look at some of these creative sandwiches that you can make to use up leftover turkey.

When you’re tired of “Thanksgiving” food, try Turkey Subs with Artichoke and Sun Dried Tomato. Baguette sandwiches feature turkey, sundried tomatoes, spinach, artichoke hearts, fresh mozzarella and Basil Dijion Aioli. Definitely doesn't taste like Thanksgiving at all but it will help you use up that turkey!

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I love using my sweet potato dinner rolls as the basis for Thanksgiving leftover sandwiches! Try Thanksgiving in sandwich form with these Leftover Turkey Sandwiches on Sweet Potato Rolls.

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You can easily substitute turkey for the chicken in this Curried Chicken Salad with Watercress. It has lots of flavor thanks to curry, golden raisins, apples, and spinach.

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Turkey Sandwiches with Jarlsberg and Sun Dried Tomato Pesto have tons of flavor thanks to the Sun Dried Tomato Pesto. Make them on your favorite artisan bread - I like sourdough! The result will be so far from Thanksgiving that you'll forget you're eating leftovers.

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Turkey would taste great between grilled rosemary focaccia bread with melty brie and apricots! A super hearty, warm sandwich perfect for a cold afternoon lunch!

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Leftover Turkey Soup Recipes

Turkey Soup is always a classic after Thanksgiving. I have a couple of more traditional turkey noodle soup ideas as well as a few other different ways you can use up turkey leftovers in some homemade soup!

Making homemade turkey stock is relatively simple after your Thanksgiving Feast, even if it does feel like one more thing to worry about. You'll definitely want to save your turkey carcass so you can make a batch of this!

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This recipe for Turkey Noodle Vegetable Soup is the perfect way to use up leftover Thanksgiving turkey. This updated version of the classic Turkey Soup is loaded with vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, red peppers, and green beans), rotini pasta and plenty of flavor thanks to fresh thyme and parmesan. It is best if you use your own homemade turkey stock, but you can use store bought as well. It is a is an easy classic and a great way to use that leftover turkey.

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This recipe for Slow Cooker Italian Chicken and Noodles is completely perfect for a busy, chilly evening. It takes no time at all to prepare and it absolutely hit the spot as simple comfort food. You can easily substitute leftover turkey and homemade turkey stock.

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You can turn that leftover Thanksgiving Turkey into this tasty Mexican inspired chili recipe! This White Bean Chicken Chile Verde is easily one of our favorite soup recipes. Served with a side of whole-grain with flax tortilla chips that I found at the grocery store and topped with some diced avocado it was a filling and satisfying meal.

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This Kale and Broccoli Chicken Tortellini Soup is the perfect twist on the classic Chicken Noodle when you're not feeling well and in need of a pick-me-up! Change it up again by using leftover Thanksgiving turkey and homemade turkey stock for TONS of flavor!

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Sweet and Spicy Turkey Curry Soup is the perfect way to use up your leftover Thanksgiving turkey. It will also use up some leftover sweet potatoes if you like!

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This Curried Chicken, Chickpea, and Rice Soup is a wonderful hearty soup recipe and a great way to use up any leftover turkey that you may have in your refrigerator.

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Leftover Turkey Recipes for Dinner

Casserole style recipes are a great way to use up leftover turkey. Turkey easily substitutes for chicken in many of these types of recipes, and thanks to all the other flavors going on you would feel like you're still eating turkey!

Creamy chicken filling is topped with tender buttermilk biscuits. Chicken Pot Pie with Buttermilk Biscuits is comfort food and it's finest! You definitely can't go wrong making a turkey version of this total comfort food! Bonus: It freezes well, too. If you have tons of turkey, make two and stash one in the freezer for later!

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Green Chile Turkey Tetrazzini takes this traditional Thanksgiving turkey leftover recipe to the next level with the addition of green chiles, poblano peppers, and spicy pepper jack cheese.

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Chicken Tetrazzini is a great recipe to have in your files because it is so useful around the Holiday season. This is a more traditional, classic version that we used to eat growing up. We always had it after Thanksgiving to use up our leftover turkey!

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Chicken Enchiladas with Homemade Chile Gravy Enchilada Sauce is a classic Tex-Mex dish from my childhood. Corn tortillas are stuffed with shredded chicken and smothered in a rich, chile gravy sauce before baked up to perfection with a gooey cheese topping. Enchiladas are another recipe we always had to use up leftover turkey after Thanksgiving when I was growing up.

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Leftover Ham Recipes

If we have a big group for Thanksgiving, we end up making turkey and ham (like this Slow Cooker Spiral Ham). If there is any leftover ham after the big feast, I usually dice up it up and freeze it for use later. It’s nice to have on hand for omelets or other simple dishes.

To freeze leftover ham, slice it up and wrap it in aluminum foil. Store the foil-wrapped ham packets in a freezer bag and freeze. I like to wrap the ham in foil first so it’s easy to take a little out at a time to thaw for sandwiches, omelets, soups, and more.

This Easy Loaded Baked Potato Soup Bar makes for a super simple and fun family dinner. Dress up your bowl of soup with all the delicious toppings traditional to a loaded baked potato.

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Slow Cooker Ham Soup with Potatoes and Kale is both easy to prepare and flavorful, thanks to the use of a slow cooker. The broth is super rich if you save the ham bone because it will add a ton of flavor to this soup recipe.

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This Cheesy Ham and Broccoli Calzone recipe was perfect for using up leftovers! I love the gooey cheese that oozes out when you bite into the calzone.

Ham and cheese always go hand in hand as do broccoli and cheese. I’ll be honest – even though there is nothing fancy about these calzones, I think they were so yummy and comforting that I ate two for lunch. The kids love helping me make calzones.

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Make up a quick batch of scrambled eggs, then add the eggs, ham, peppers, onion, and plenty of cheese between two flour tortillas. Grill it up for a yummy Egg and Ham Breakfast Quesadilla.

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Growing up we always had Split Pea Soup with Ham to use up leftover ham after the holidays. Load it up with carrots, onion, potatoes, and plenty of diced ham. It might not look like much, but it is so good. Total comfort food with plenty of good memories - perfect for a cold winter night! Save the ham bone for this soup so you can get extra flavor in your stock!

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These Make Ahead Mini Ham and Spinach Breakfast Pies are super easy to prepare because they use Bisquick baking mix. They can be made ahead and reheated on a busy morning if you don’t want to get up early and they are really yummy. The store well in the freezer, too!

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Egg Scramble with Ham and Peppers has everything that is usually in a Denver Omelet, but in scramble form making it much less fussy in the end. These are great for breakfast to use up leftover ham. You can also put it inside a tortilla for a breakfast burrito.

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Leftover Cranberry Sauce Recipes

Cranberry Sauce and Cranberry Relish are pretty darn good on their own just slathered onto a hot, buttery roll.

But, here are a few fun recipes you can make using any leftover cranberry sauce after your Thanksgiving celebrations.

Whipped Cranberry Butter is a great way to use leftover cranberry sauce after Thanksgiving! My family loves this on toast, buttermilk biscuits, sweet potato rolls!

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These Bite-Sized Mini Cranberry Walnut Tarts are the perfect little sweet treats to pop in your mouth and will help you use any leftover cranberry sauce that you may have.

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Stir some leftover Cranberry Sauce or Cranberry Relish into real Maple Syrup to make Cranberry Orange Maple Syrup. This tastes great on homemade waffles!

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Stir some leftover Cranberry Sauce or Cranberry Relish into plain yogurt for some cranberry yogurt! You can layer it in a glass with granola for a special breakfast treat!

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This recipe for Overnight Apple Pie Steel Cut Oats is flavored with the apple pie flavors, have chunks of real honeycrisp apples, and are super simple to make thanks to soaking overnight! Top this Overnight Apple Steel Cut Oats with a dollop or two of leftover cranberry sauce!

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What do you do with Thanksgiving leftovers?

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