What do you think of when you hear the word Thanksgiving? A Normal Rockwell family sitting down to eat their big shiny turkey? Pilgrims and Native Americans eating corn together? Or a loud boisterous family trying to cook and eat together while they bicker, laugh and get in each other’s way?
If the latter, then your idea of Thanksgiving is refreshingly grounded in reality. But along with the family and friends bringing various plates and drinks into your house for the big holiday meal, you have to also consider the food safety issues related to feeding all those loved ones safely.
Now I don’t want to be a downer, but if there’s any day during the year when you might accidentally spread some bacteria or make someone sick, it’s Thanksgiving. But keeping your meal safe for your family and guests isn’t difficult if you take a few proactive steps. Following are some easy food safety guidelines for not only the holiday meal, but every day throughout the year.
Please note that I won’t discuss how to purchase or store a raw turkey because at this point (as today is Thanksgiving) that ship has sailed. If you would like information on this topic, however, go to the USDA’s Poultry Preparation web page.
And because this isn’t the most festive topic, here’s that old Saturday Night Live skit of Dan Ackroyd playing Julia Child to get you into a merry mood first. In it, poor Julia definitely needs some food safety tips.
And now for those safety tips:
Maintaining a Clean Work Area
Preparing a Thanksgiving dinner can be a messy endeavor, but you’ll find that keeping your hands and work area clean is the key to success if you want to keep everyone safe. So be sure to:
• Clean your work area thoroughly before starting to handle the turkey. Although you may be literally up to your ears in food that needs to be dealt with, you should remove everything from the area where the raw turkey will be handled.
• Don’t place raw meat on a porous surface (such as wood or grout). If you don’t have a solid non-porous surface to work with, place a large plastic cutting board down for your work area or line the counter with layers of foil.
• Use separate cutting boards for raw and cooked foods.
• After handling the turkey, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly in warm soapy water. And don’t’ be lazy. If you handled the turkey and then need to go to the refrigerator to pull our some butter or herbs, don’t just quickly wipe off your hands before opening the refrigerator as any bacteria on your hands will be transferred to the dish towel and then the refrigerator handle and anything else you touch. Best to wash your hands every time you have to touch anything other than the turkey and its ingredients during the process.
• Set aside any herbs, salt or spices that you will use when preparing your turkey. So if you’re using a dried spice, don’t handle the container throughout the preparation process. Rather you should set some in a bowl before you start for use. Throw out anything unused in the bowls when you’re done.
• Be sure to clean your workspace with hot soapy water when you’re finished and toss any used dish towels in the wash.
How to Treat Stuffing
• Keep any wet ingredients refrigerated until ready for use.
• Stuff the bird moments before baking. Don’t stuff it early in the day (or the day before) and then leave refrigerated (or worse yet at room temperature). Stuffing can easily harbor bacteria, so be sure to keep it fresh until it goes inside the turkey.
• Don’t overpack the stuffing in your turkey as it will take longer to cook than the bird if you do this (which will dry out the turkey meat). So be sure to stuff loosely.
• Make sure your stuffing is nice and moist as the oven’s heat will destroy bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment.
• Cook the stuffing until it is at least 165 degrees (just like the turkey).
• Remove the stuffing when you take the turkey out of the oven.
Tip: If the bird seems fully roasted but the stuffing still isn’t 165 degrees, remove the stuffing from the bird and continue baking in a separate dish. Also make sure the turkey cavity is 165 degrees before taking it out of the oven.
Note: The USDA actually prefers that people don’t stuff the bird, but I love the flavor of the turkey drippings in the stuffing so I disregard this advice. If you do stuff, however, be safe.
For more information on stuffing, check out the ridiculously informative stuffing safety page on the USDA web site.
The Temperature of Your Bird
The USDA has determined that the internal food temperature for your turkey should be at least 165 degrees. Be sure to check various locations of the bird before taking it out of the oven as white and dark meat cooks differently. Also, be sure to take an internal temperature (i.e., inside the cavity of the turkey).
Note: The turkey will continue to cook as it rests, so if you feel sure everything will reach 165 degrees when tenting on the counter, you can take it out at about 160 degrees (I do). But please be sure to take the temperature after 5-7 minutes to make sure you get to 165 (especially if feeding kids and pregnant women).
What to Do When You Remove the Turkey From the Oven
• Immediately remove the stuffing and set in a separate dish. If the stuffing has reached 165 degrees you can set aside covered. If not, set the dish in the oven to continue baking until it reaches the designated temperature.
• Let the turkey rest for at least 15-20 minutes. If you need to use the pan to make gravy, just set the turkey on a large dish or plastic cutting board and tent with foil.
• When carving the turkey, look to make sure pink juices are not present. If they are, you have misjudged the turkey’s temperature and it needs to be cooked more fully.
During the Big Meal
• Don’t leave any meat, stuffing or gravy on the counter for longer than 2 hours. If you have food on the counter that you do not intend to use during the meal, quickly store it in the proper container and set in the refrigerator for later use. According to the USDA web site: “Scientists have found that after 2 hours at room temperature, bacteria can multiply on foods to high enough levels to cause illness.”
• If you do leave food out, you will need to toss any turkey, gravy or stuffing that is left at room temperature for over 2 hours.
• If you have an all-day buffet, keep part of the turkey, gravy and stuffing in the refrigerator instead of putting the whole thing out to sit for hours. Presenting smaller amounts to your guests will allow you to make sure the food isn’t sitting around too long.
• Remove all the meat from the turkey and store in small portions in either ziplock bags or containers in the refrigerator or freezer. Do NOT set the entire turkey on a plate in the refrigerator as different parts of the bird cool at different rates.
• Use refrigerated turkey and stuffing within 3 to 4 days. Use gravy within 1 to 2 days. If you think you won’t use it this quickly, freeze.
• If freezing leftovers, use within 2 to 6 months for best quality.
• Thoroughly cook anything that uses eggs (especially if you’re cooking for kids or pregnant women).
• Refrigerate anything made with eggs, dairy or meat until ready to use and then after use.
• If traveling to a relative or friend’s house with your own prepared dish, be sure to set it in a cooler if the food needs to be refrigerated and the trip will take over an hour.
• Place all perishable foods in the refrigerator within two hours.
And if you’re really in a fix, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline toll free at