Thanksgiving Safety: From Prep to Leftovers

Thanksgiving food safety requires proper preparation, cooking, and storage of turkey and other foods

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Can't wait to dive into that Thanksgiving feast? Well, hold on a moment. Whether you're cooking the meal or simply enjoying the leftovers the day after, there are some food safety tips you should know.

A safe Thanksgiving meal requires safe food preparation, cooking and storage, especially when it comes to the centerpiece of the meal — the turkey.

"Unsafe handling and undercooking of your turkey can lead to serious foodborne illness," said Maria Malagon, director of food safety education with the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), in a press release. "Turkeys may contain Salmonella and Campylobacter, harmful pathogens that are only destroyed by properly preparing and cooking a turkey."

So, the first step is to safely prepare the turkey. Before cooking the turkey, check the temperature labels to see whether the bird is fresh or frozen. According to the USDA, if it's fresh, you don't want to buy it more than two days before Thanksgiving.

Next, get a refrigerator thermometer and a food thermometer. Use the refrigerator thermometer to make sure you are storing the turkey at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. You'll need the food thermometer to make sure you've cooked the turkey to a safe temperature, which the USDA says is 165 degrees F.

Then you need to thaw the turkey. There are a few ways to thaw a turkey, such as using the microwave, the cold water method (wrapping the turkey in a leak-proof plastic bag and submerging it in cold tap water) and the refrigerator method. If you use the refrigerator method, which the USDA recommends, let the turkey sit for about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds and put it in a container to prevent the juices from dripping on other foods in your fridge.

Now, it's time to cook. What's the first step? Wash your hands! The USDA says to use warm water and soap for 20 seconds before touching any food. Thorough handwashing can prevent the spread of illness.

Washing the turkey, on the other hand, is a bad idea. Washing the turkey only spreads pathogens that cause foodborne illness onto other surfaces in your kitchen. There's only one way to kill these harmful pathogens: fully cook the turkey.

While you're preparing your Thanksgiving meal, you'll likely have all sorts of foods spread around your kitchen. So, be especially careful when handling the uncooked turkey. Keep raw turkey away from all other foods at all times. That means using different cutting boards, plates and utensils for the raw turkey, and washing all of these items with warm water and soap after use.

Once your turkey is prepped, throw it in the oven and cook it to 165 degrees F. Remember to use the food thermometer to measure the temperature.

In all likelihood, you'll have some leftovers after the Thanksgiving meal, which means you still need to take measures to ensure your food remains safe. The USDA recommends getting those leftovers in the fridge within two hours. That keeps bacteria from growing on the food.

The USDA further recommends storing leftovers in shallow containers. Such containers reduce cooling time and prevent leftovers from spending too much time at unsafe temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F. Also, the USDA says not to keep the stuffing stuffed in a leftover turkey — put it in a separate container.

Lastly, according to the USDA, you should not eat leftovers that have been in the fridge for more than three or four days. At that point, the leftovers should've been stored in the freezer.

"Leftovers the next day can be a lovely reminder of the meal you shared with loved ones," said food scientist Kantha Shelke, PhD, a spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), in an IFT press statement. "They're also a great way to stretch your food budget."

According to Dr. Shelke, who is also a principal at Chicago-based food research firm Corvus Blue, "Properly handling and storing leftovers can help ensure your family gets the most value and enjoyment out of the food you've prepared."

Review Date: 
November 25, 2014
Last Updated:
November 30, 2014