Thanksgiving food safety 101


The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) are the victims of foodborne illnesses.

Whether you’ll be cooking the whole meal for the first time this year or you're an avid holiday hosting chef, don’t let you or your loved ones be part of that 1 in 6 statistic. Follow these tips and you’ll have a healthy and happy Thanksgiving!

Plan ahead. Clean out your fridge the week before to make room for thawing the turkey and storing leftovers. You also need to decide if you’ll be purchasing a frozen or fresh turkey. If you plan to purchase a fresh turkey, do so only 1-2 days before cooking. A frozen turkey can be purchased at any time as long as you have room to freeze it until it needs to be thawed.

Speaking of thawing a turkey, there are three safe ways to do this: in the refrigerator, in cold water or in a microwave. Thawing in cold water requires you to change the water every 30 minutes and can take up to 10-12 hours with larger turkeys. If you ask me, the easier way would be to let the turkey thaw in the fridge. Make sure you allow ample time for this! See the chart below for suggested thawing times.

Size of whole turkey Number of days

4 to 12 pounds 1 to 3 days

12 to 16 pounds 3 to 4 days

16 to 20 pounds 4 to 5 days

20 to 24 pounds 5 to 6 days

Next, as you’re planning, you need to think about oven and stove space. If you have two casseroles plus a turkey to cook and you only have one oven, will it be possible to get everything cooked on time? You may need to consider making certain dishes the night before. This will also save you time (and sanity) the day of!

Cook thoroughly. Do not rely on the pop-up timers that many turkeys come with. Use a food thermometer to check the temperature in the innermost thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. The minimum internal temperature should reach 165 degrees for optimum safety. Side note: do not stuff your turkey. Stuffing should be cooked in it’s own baking dish.

Traveling with food. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. This is especially important if you are traveling long distances. For hot foods, wrap the dishes in foil and heavy towels. Or, use insulated containers that are designed to keep foods warm. If you plan to travel with turkey, it may be easier and safer to bring it already cooked and cold. Carry it in an insulated cooler packed with ice or frozen ice packs to keep the cooler temperature under 40 degrees. Then reheat the turkey at your final destination.

Keep food out of the temperature danger zone. The temperature danger zone is a range of temperatures between 40 to 140 degrees, where bacteria grows rapidly. Do not leave perishable foods in the danger zone for more than two hours. If two hours have passed, it’s time to toss it. To keep prepared food items out of this danger zone, use chafing dishes, preheated warming trays, multi-cookers, slow cookers, or toaster ovens to keep food warm. Leave cold foods refrigerated until it’s time to serve and put leftovers away immediately following the meal.

Store leftovers. Leftover food items that are stored in the refrigerator should be eaten within three to four days or you can store them in the freezer. Throw away any leftovers after Day 4. When reheating leftovers, they should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Wishing you and your loved ones a happy Thanksgiving!

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Jordan Luxa is the Food, Nutrition & Health Educator for Nebraska Extension in Washington County. She can be contacted at 402-426-9455,, or visit the Washington County Extension website at


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