These easy tips will help you keep food safety front and center of your Thanksgiving feast.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S. R.D.
October 26, 2020
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turkey leg with thermometer
Credit: Levi Brown

You’ve spent hours preparing the meal. Your Thanksgiving table is set. Your home smells amazing and your guests are impressed. Even the family dog is drooling. You’ve thought of everything. Or have you? Follow these food-safety tips to keep in mind to avoid serving up a side of salmonella or some other unwanted dinner guest.

Prep Your Kitchen

Start by disinfecting any surfaces you’ll be using (kitchen counters, cutting boards, sink) with an antibacterial cleaner, and make space in your refrigerator to thaw the turkey or store pre-prepped dishes, says Robert C. Williams, Ph.D., a professor of food microbiology at Virginia Tech. And check your fridge temp: it should be set at 40°F or lower. He says it’s not uncommon to find them running at higher (unsafe) temperatures.

Thaw the Right Way

Williams recommends slow-thawing frozen turkeys in the fridge. Be sure to give yourself at least 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of meat. Slow-thawed turkeys can stay in the fridge for up to 2 days before cooking. In a pinch, you can use the cold water method: Fill your sink with cold water and submerge the packaged turkey, changing the water every 30 minutes. This method takes about 30 minutes for each pound of turkey to get a complete thaw.

Don't Rinse Your Bird

"It results in splatters that may spread harmful bacteria throughout your kitchen,” says Williams. In fact, a 2019 experiment by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service found that 60% of the 300 participants who washed their poultry had bacteria in their sink, and 26% transferred that bacteria to ready-to-eat-foods, like lettuce. What’s more, 14% of sinks were still contaminated after cleaning.

Dress, Don't Stuff

Stuffing the bird means that the turkey will be done before the stuffing—deep in the center—reaches a safe temperature. Cook the dressing in a separate dish.

Avoid the All-Day Buffet

Good food and wine can make the time fly. But while you’re chatting, the clock is ticking for getting your leftovers out of the “danger zone” where bacteria grow most rapidly—between 40°F and 140°F—and into the fridge. Williams suggests all leftovers, including the turkey, be refrigerated within 2 hours of leaving the oven, even if the food is still warm. (A 2018 study found that 90% of people wait until food is room temp, which could make it unsafe.)

Have a Plan for Leftovers

They should be eaten within 4 days of going into the fridge, says Williams. Or hey, why not send guests home with some of that tasty bounty?

EatingWell, November 2020