Thanksgiving is over, your meal was amazing! They raved about your turkey and everyone loved your homemade cranberry sauce and stuffing. What happens next is an important part of how to save all that delicious leftover food from going to waste. Sure, everyone will want a late-night turkey sandwich or a plate of everything reheated the very next day, but two or three days of that same old meal loses its allure quickly. In the eyes of your family, your beloved turkey dinner slowly morphs into the dreaded Thanksgiving meal that will never end.
The secret to using up all that leftover Thanksgiving goodness is a multi-pronged approach including handling the food properly, meal planning, and creativity. By reimagining the Thanksgiving dishes by their ingredients you can team them up with your family’s other favorite foods. Don’t worry if you are not culinary trained, we have compiled information from the experts and have tested some of the recipes ourselves. We will walk you through every step of the way starting with food safety.
How to Properly Pack Thanksgiving Leftovers
The first step to using those leftovers is to properly store them away. Too often the food sits for hours waiting to be packed up and this can be dangerous. Foodborne diseases are far more serious than many people realize. The Federal government estimates that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually — the equivalent of sickening 1 in 6 Americans each year. And each year these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Bottom line: Absolutely no grazing!
Watch local food safety expert Ben Chapman, from North Carolina State University, explain what is the safest way to handle Thanksgiving leftovers. Spoiler alert; after he properly packs the food away he also sets the temperature of his refrigerator in a way that allows him to store his leftovers for a longer period of time.
Leftover Food Tips
- Food should not be left out more than 2 hours without being refrigerated.
- Remove all the turkey meat from the bone and save the carcass for soup. It is okay to freeze it if you are not going to have time to make soup in the next few days.
- Sliced white meat can be kept moist in a plastic baggy with a damp paper towel.
- Leftover cranberry sauce should be put into mason jars or glass bowls with lids. Do not use plastic containers as the cranberry will stain them. Do not overfill as the cranberry will make a mess in the fridge.
- Leftover gravy should be stored the same way.
- Don’t throw away the mashed potatoes as these can be recooked or repurposed.
- Vegetables can all be used again so pack them in baggies or sealed in a container regardless if it is corn, carrots or green beans.
- Casseroles like Green bean or Sweet potato should be placed in small glass containers with lids so that they can easily be reheated.
- Leftover salad without dressing can be placed in a baggie with a dry paper towel for the next day.
- Cover pies with plastic wrap and/or aluminum foil and refrigerate.
- A cake can be frozen in slices for an appearance on a weeknight meal or late night treat.
- Even leftover wine or apple cider should be repurposed. You can freeze it into cubes or simply refrigerate and add to sauces or marinades.
Now that it is all packed up and put away in the fridge, what’s next? Taking that refrigerator temperature is really the key as to how long you can safely keep food. According to the FDA, your fridge should be at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. At that temperature, you can safely eat the leftovers for 3 days. After that, anything that is still waiting for its moment to shine again should be placed in the freezer. Frozen foods will not spoil, however, they do lose their flavor over time. Ben Chapman, the NC State food safety specialist, set his refrigerator temperature at 38 or 39 degrees Fahrenheit and he keeps his leftovers for as many as seven days. Invest in a refrigerator thermometer to ensure you are storing foods at an appropriate temperature.
I like to make dishes that use some of the ingredients but taste nothing like the original dish. Our meal plan will stick with the 40 degrees F refrigerator temperature setting, therefore we will use the three-day rule. Many of the items in our meal plan are adapted from our own recipes where we will simply substitute the original protein with the leftover turkey. By utilizing the leftovers you will save money and feed your family for the rest of the week. The meals will taste great and will not end up repeating the same dinner they had on Thanksgiving.
This above menu is a sample to show how you might plan your meals for three days. We have many other suggestions and substitutions depending on your family’s food preferences.
Recipes for Repurposing
The first item on our menu was the Stuffing Waffles with Maple Cranberry Syrup. This was a savory breakfast item, that could also be substituted for brunch or lunch. The waffle is made from leftover stuffing (I use sausage and apple in mine). The recipe for the waffle calls for cheddar cheese and egg. The syrup is simple to make using leftover cranberry sauce and maple syrup. You can adjust the sweetness as you like.
If waffles are not your jam, maybe repurposing the leftover stuffing inside some acorn squash would hit the spot. This recipe was one that we found created by another food blogger so we can not vouch for it, but it certainly does look interesting.
2. Stuffing Filled Acorn Squash
When it comes to Shepherd’s Pie there really is no limit to what you can do. Our sample menu utilizes the leftover mashed potatoes so all you needed to do is make your preferred filling using beef or turkey, and corn or green beans. Below are the types of Shepherd’s pies we have made along with their recipes, but if you are utilizing either your leftover Sweet Potato Casserole or the mashed potatoes, you have already cut your prep time in half!
3. Use the Piped Shepherd’s Pie to make everyone think you spent hours making this special dish- Only you will know it’s made from leftovers.
4. The Not Your Momma’s Shepherd’s Pie is filled with Comfort.
5. The Sweet Potato Turkey Shephard’s Pie will leave you craving more.
The Cranberry Smoothie is the perfect repurpose of the Thanksgiving cranberry sauce. This recipe was a pleasant surprise. We made these for a quick morning breakfast. We did two versions: a sweet one that will appeal to the kids and a more tart grown up version. Whichever one you decide to make, you will not be disappointed by this leftover cranberry sauce smoothie.
8. We also reimagined our Mexican Stuffed Peppers that are usually made with ground beef and substituted leftover shredded turkey.
9. Mexican Stuffed Zucchini Boats typically made with ground turkey can be made with the pre-cooked turkey that was left from your Thanksgiving feast. Again, this is a timesaver and a money saver. What a great way to repurpose your American food into an ethnic feast.
Continuing with ethnic flavors, bring a bit of Italy in with this twist on turkey soup.
Day-After Turkey Soup is not such a big surprise, however when you add in these little shells and prepare this Italian style dish by adding grated cheese before serving. This soup will certainly have them coming back for seconds!
11.. We also found a recipe for Penne w Turkey, Kale, and Olives in a goat cheese sauce yum! This one belongs to Martha Stewart but if I had any turkey left, I would be giving this one a try.
If you want a change from using your leftovers that are not Mexican or Italian, why not try making a Vietnamese Pho soup? This spicy soup is normally made with beef or chicken so by all means substitute in that turkey. If you want something hearty to go along as we did on our Saturday menu, you could add some chopped turkey to some cabbage and carrots to make the filling for turkey spring rolls.
These spring rolls are really easy to make. You can create the filling ahead of time so all you have to do is roll and fry them when it’s meal time. You can even make them in the air fryer! You could possibly roll some extra and freeze them for another time. I also make my own duck sauce for dipping. You can find the link for the sauce with the Spring roll recipe.
Bonus Recipes Worth Trying
The days after Thanksgiving are really a long weekend that got us thinking about how to incorporate those leftovers into some pub type foods. 14. Why not make a Buffalo Dip using turkey instead of chicken? Serve it up with a blue cheese dressing and leftover celery you likely have in the refrigerator. You can also make 15. Turkey and Cheese Quesadillas or 16. Turkey Queso.
If your family insists that they want the true flavors of Thanksgiving served to them, once again there is an option that will not look like an unappealing pile of leftovers thrown onto a plate drowning in gravy. This recipe turns all their favorite flavors into little balls called 17. Thanksgiving Leftover Gravy Balls.
As we reflect on all things Thanksgiving we are thankful for the bounty that sits on our table this year and for all years past. We wish you and your family the best of things to come in the holiday season that lies before us.
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Love of Food Magazine.