Whatever your menu, you always need to watch out when guests are late or don’t arrive how you preserve the freshness and safety of your special feast. Let’s assume you’re serving a standard holiday meal: turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, one or two green vegetables, mashed and/or sweet potatoes, and holiday pie(s). Look for great recipes in holiday bestsellers on Amazon.com or at websites like Epicurious, the most trusted, authoritative, and award-winning digital voice in food.
You’ve cleaned up the house and decorated, maybe with fresh flowers or a special centerpiece. Then the bad news. The snow is falling… visibility zero… airports closed… freezing rain… treacherous winds… thundersnow… emergencies. And unfortunately, climate change is making bad weather more likely. Guests are stranded, can’t make it, going to be late.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has some commonsense suggestions for what to do with holiday food if guests are late or the special meal has to be postponed. What to do with a turkey may be the most important question.
If snowy weather causes road advisories and guests have to stay home
Go ahead and finish cooking the turkey. It will be stable in the refrigerator if cooked. Then you can reschedule the meal within four days. Slice the bird after cooking, arrange the meat in shallow containers, and refrigerate it so it will rapidly cool to a safe temperature. Refrigerate all other dishes as well.
For storage longer than four days, freeze the turkey and any other cooked food. Cooked frozen foods keep their best quality (flavor, texture, juiciness) for as long as three to four months. Most vegetable, rice, and pasta dishes can be frozen. Cream sauces may become lumpy or separate when frozen and reheated, but they will be safe to serve and you can always add fresh liquid to them and/or restir.
If the guests have been delayed at least an hour
Keep the hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Don’t let any cooked food, meat, or poultry remain in the danger zone — between 40 °F and 140 °F — for more than 2 hours.
If you have turkey in the oven already, you may be able to hold it safely by using a food thermometer in the thickest part of the turkey and adjusting the oven temperature so that the food stays at an internal temp of 140 °F or above until your guests arrive. To prevent dryness in the side dishes, cover them or wrap them with aluminum foil.
The guests probably can’t make it for three hours
If the guests will be arriving much later, you risk the food drying out. It’s safer to refrigerate it and reheat when your guests arrive. If you have prepared a turkey and it is safely done several hours before you need to serve it, remove it from the oven and let it stand for 20 minutes.
If the turkey is stuffed, remove the stuffing, place it in a shallow container, cover, and refrigerate. (It’s often recommended that you cook the stuffing separately rather than inside the cavity of the bird.) Remove the legs, thighs, and wings, separate the meat from the bone if desired, and refrigerate. Slice and arrange the turkey as above. Don’t worry about putting your other hot dishes directly into the refrigerator–the thermostat will keep the unit at a safe temperature (40 °F or below).
When the guests arrive, the turkey can be served cold or reheated. To reheat the turkey, baste it with a little pan juice or broth, and cover it with foil. Reheat all food in a 325 °F oven to an internal temperature of 165 °F, or until hot and steaming. The stuffing can be heated alongside the turkey. Keep cold dishes refrigerated until mealtime.
For more advice on handling and storing many foods safely and preventing food poisoning, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service has an excellent Q&A to help 24/7 at AskKaren.gov. Every winter holiday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) also receives inquiries from consumers who need help with unplanned situations. You can call them on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET, and on Thanksgiving Day, from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm Eastern Time.
Have a happy (and scrumptious) holiday season!
Look for other holiday meal advisories here: