Let’s Talk Turkey: Preparing a Safe Holiday Feast

11-21-turkeyNicole Goben, MS, RD, CDN

Thanksgiving is a time to gather with loved ones and enjoy each other’s company alongside a great meal. But what if all that fun and merriment turns to misery if you or your guests get sick? Luckily, by following some simple food safety rules you can ensure a safe meal for all!

Planning and Preparation

  • Beginning at the grocery store, remember to keep fresh fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat and poultry.
  • Pick up cold foods last and head straight home after shopping to refrigerate perishable items.
  • Your kitchen should be equipped for safe food handling with at least two cutting boards (one for raw meat and one for ready-to-eat foods), a food thermometer, shallow containers for storage, paper towels and soap.
  • Make sure there is room for your feast in the fridge (and freezer, if buying ahead) and that they are set to the correct temperature.
  • The fridge should be at or below 40°F and the freezer at 0°F.

Plan ahead to give your turkey ample time to thaw from frozen. It is NOT SAFE to thaw your turkey on the counter.There are three safe ways to thaw your turkey:
In the fridge: Place the turkey in a container to prevent juices from dripping; allow 24 hours to thaw each 4-5 pounds of turkey.

Cold water: Wrap the turkey in a leak free plastic bag and place in cold tap water, allow 30 minutes for each pound of turkey and change the water every 30 minutes. Cook the turkey immediately after thawing.

Microwave: Follow microwave instructions on package and cook the turkey immediately after thawing.

Working in the Kitchen


  • Wash hands with warm soapy water for about 20 seconds (or the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice).
  • Clean food contact surfaces (cutting boards, utensils, counters) before and after preparing each food item.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly under cool running water.

Separate: To prevent cross-contamination, keep raw eggs, meat, poultry and seafood away from fruits, vegetables and other food that won’t be cooked.

Cook: Food is safely cooked when it reaches a high enough internal temperature to kill harmful bacteria. Turkey is safe to eat when it reaches 165°F and if it has stuffing inside that should also reach 165°F.

Wrapping up Leftovers
While eating and chatting with friends and family, be mindful of how long your food is left sitting at room temperature. The temperature danger zone is anywhere between 40-140°F (room temperature) when bacteria multiply rapidly. When perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and casseroles are left at room temperature longer than two hours they are no longer safe to save as leftovers. So, as you switch to dessert and pull out the pies, get your feast into the fridge or freezer! Optimal storage for leftovers is in a shallow, air-tight container with a label and date. Make sure to reheat leftovers to 165°F and eat or freeze leftovers within three to four days.

Follow these tips and your guests will leave smiling, stuffed, and safe! Have a Happy Thanksgiving!