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Turkey Day Safety

Posted in Our Blog on November 22, 2023

It’s that time of year again. The mercury begins to drop, the leaves change color, and a feast of a holiday is just around the corner. Here’s some Turkey Day Safety tips to make your table food poisoning- free!

Food safety is important when preparing all meals, but during larger gatherings such as Thanksgiving, there are a few different variables. Folks are sometimes traveling with their dishes to be served at another location and the meal lingers on for a few hours as people graze and socialize. These can be ingredients for a recipe of disaster.

“While the four steps to food safety – clean, separate, cook, and chill – are important every day and at every meal, they are particularly important on Thanksgiving,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary Sandra Eskin. “There will likely be many guests and many delicious dishes at your holiday table, but you don’t want to invite any foodborne pathogens. Follow those four steps – in particular remember to use a food thermometer – and your Thanksgiving dinner will be a safe one.”

Here are a few tips to serve up America’s biggest meal safely.

Clean Hands and Sanitize Surfaces

Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands! Say it louder for the folks in the back. WASH YOUR HANDS! Handwashing is the first step in avoiding foodborne illness. Clean hands reduce the chances of spreading germs and consuming germs.

Wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after handling food. Wash hands before you start, when moving to one step to another, especially after handling raw food, and before serving and/or eating. “In a recent study, 97% of participants in a USDA test kitchen failed to wash their hands properly.”

Proper Handwashing Steps:

  1. Wet hands with clean, running water. – Warm water is best.
  2. Lather your fingers with soap.
  3. Scrub soapy hands and fingers thoroughly for at least 20 seconds. – Consider singing the Happy Birthday song twice.
  4. Rinse your hands under clean, running water. – Warm water is best.
  5. Dry hands off with a clean towel or air dry them.

Keep surfaces cleaned and sanitized. Be sure to clean and sanitize any surfaces that have touched raw turkey or other meat and its juices and will later touch other foods. These surfaces include but are not limited to kitchen counters, sinks, stoves, tabletops, cutting boards, etc.

Avoid Cross-Contamination

Sharing is caring, but cross-contamination is not. Cross contamination in the kitchen is the “spread of bacteria from raw meat and poultry onto ready-to-eat food, surfaces, and utensils.

Having separate cutting boards for raw meat and poultry and for fruits and vegetables is a great way to avoid cross contamination. Cutting boards should be cleaned after each use, but segregated equipment can reduce that risk even further.

One recent study found that “sinks are the most contaminated areas of the kitchen.” Wash your sink out regularly, and in particular after coming in contact with raw meat and/or poultry.

Despite what your grandmother might have told you, do not wash your raw poultry in the sink. In fact, the USDA recommends against it. Washing raw poultry in the sink can cause harmful bacteria to splash and aerosolize throughout your kitchen. Be sure to clean and sanitize any areas that might come in contact with the turkey before and after cooking.

Thaw the Turkey Safely

Turkeys are rather large pieces of meat. While most meats follow this rule of thumb, turkeys in particular, should not be thawed in hot water or on a countertop. Parts of the turkey can thaw way before others, allowing harmful bacteria to grow to infectious numbers.

There are three safe ways to thaw that bird safely – In the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave.

No time to thaw? You can cook a completely frozen turkey in the oven (NOT in a fryer). It will, however, take at least 50% more cook time. Verify a safe temperature with a food thermometer.

Refrigerator Thawing

The best way to thaw a turkey is to place in a refrigerator. This method is slow and safe, allowing it to thaw at refrigeration temperatures. In general, this often takes roughly 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of raw weight. After thaw, the meat is safe in a refrigerator for another day or two.

Cold Water Thawing

Don’t have time to wait a few days to thaw in the refrigerator. Cold water thawing can get the job done a little faster. Completely submerge the turkey in its original wrapping in a cold-water bath. Allow 30 minutes per pound, changing water every 30 minutes until the turkey is completely thawed. Using this method, the turkey must be cooked immediately following thaw.  Remember to clean the sink!

Microwave Thawing

An even faster method of cooking involves thawing in the microwave. If the turkey fits in the microwave, this could be an option for you. Follow the manufacture’s recommendations for thawing poultry. Thawing using this method requires the bird to be cooked immediately. When thawing in the microwave, some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during the thawing process. This could bring food into the “danger zone” allowing for bacteria to grow to infectious numbers.

Cook Thoroughly

Be sure to thoroughly cook your turkey. The safe internal temperature for poultry is 165 °F. Always use a food thermometer to ensure appropriate internal temperature is met. Insert the food thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh. Even if the turkey has a pop-up thermometer, the USDA still recommends using a food thermometer to check the internal temperature in those three locations.


The age-old Thanksgiving question. To dress or to stuff? Some families make dressing, where the cornbread-based side is baked on the side, while others go the more traditional route where it is cooked stuffed inside the turkey. The USDA recommends AGAINST stuffing the turkey as “this often leads to bacterial growth.” So, if you are in a familial battle – blame the USDA to win the dressing war.

If you insist on stuffing, follow these steps to minimize risk for a happily stuffed bird:

  1. Prepare the wet and dry ingredients separately and refrigerate until you are ready for them. Mix the wet and dry ingredients together just before stuffing.
  2. Be ready to cook once the bird is stuffed. Do not stuff the poultry and leave in the refrigerator before cooking. Immediately place stuffed, raw turkey into an oven set no lower than 325 °F
  3. Stuff loosely. Do not pack it in. Plan for no more than ¾ cup of stuffing per pound of bird.
  4. Plan for a longer bake time. A stuffed turkey takes a bit longer to cook. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperatures at the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh and the center of the stuffing to ensure it has reached a safe internal temperature of 165 °F.
  5. Don’t get in a hurry. Allow the cooked turkey to stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing.

The Two-Hour Rule

Even though people may cycle in and out of the kitchen on this grazing holiday, leaving food out more than two hours can be dangerous. Refrigerate all perishable foods within two hours of being cooked. This time is cut to one hour if the ambient temperature is above 90 °F.

This two-hour rule is to keep hot foods out of the danger zone. The “Danger Zone” is temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F. This is the temperature ranger where bacteria begin to multiply quickly and grow to numbers that cause food to be unsafe to consume. Always keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, and discard any foods left out for more than two hours.

When transporting foods, consider the following tips:

Transporting hot foodsPlace dishes in insulated containers and/or wrap in foil. Keep temperatures above 140 °F. Plan to heat food just prior to leaving to ensure foods are consumed within 2 hours of cooking.

Transporting cold foods – Place cold items in a cooler with ice or gel pack. Keep temperatures at or below 40 °F.


Leftovers are inevitable, as this is the #1 over-cooking holiday. Most families make more food than they can consume. Be sure to store leftovers safely.

Store food in small, shallow containers and refrigerate. Thanksgiving leftovers should be consumed within four days. If frozen, the leftovers are safe to consume indefinitely (if properly thawed and heated). For best quality, consume within two to six months (depending on the food).

Happy Thanksgiving

Have an enjoyable and safe Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving from, from our family to yours!

By: Heather Van Tassell