Let’s Talk Turkey: Your Guide to a Food Safety Thanksgiving

November 19, 2015
Kristina Beaugh, MPH

Kristina Beaugh, MPH, is a member of the Food Safety Education Staff at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service.

It’s that time of year again—Thanksgiving! I can already smell the turkey and pumpkin pie. For many cooks, Thanksgiving dinner is the largest meal they prepare. But the centerpiece—the turkey—can lead to foodborne illness with unsafe handling and undercooking. For people with cancer, foodborne illness can lead to serious infection, hospitalization, or even death. You can protect yourself and those you care for with these food safety tips.

Planning Ahead

For big Thanksgiving dinners, planning ahead is very important. share on twitter  Plan your menu now and make your grocery list to be sure nothing is forgotten. Shelf stable items like cranberry sauce can be purchased now to shorten your shopping list later.

When you’re deciding how much turkey to buy, a good rule to follow is to allow one pound of turkey per person. Now the real question is, frozen or fresh? Actually, there is no significant quality difference between the two. Buy a fresh turkey no more than 1 to 2 days before cooking. Check with your grocer as some stores allow you to preorder a turkey a few weeks in advance to pick up later. If you’d like to get your turkey purchased early, opt for a frozen one, and keep it frozen until you’re ready to thaw and cook it. The U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers great tips for thawing times here, and remember, once it’s thawed, your turkey is safe for 2 more days in the refrigerator.

And lastly, don’t forget to pick up a food thermometer at the grocery store! share on twitter You’ll need it to check the temperature of the turkey to be sure it is finished cooking and safe to eat.

Thanksgiving Day

You can keep your Thanksgiving safe and delicious with the four food safety steps—Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill. share on twitter 

CLEAN:  Wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds throughout the cooking process, especially before handling food and after handling raw meat and poultry. This is one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent the spread of bacteria.

SEPARATE:  Always separate raw turkey from ready-to-eat foods. You can also avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils when preparing and serving food. 

COOK:  Trying to figure out when the turkey is done is often the hardest task, but it doesn’t have to be. You can impress your family by using a food thermometer to cook like a PROPlace the thermometer, Read the temperature, Out of the oven!

Place the thermometer in three different spots to determine the temperature of the turkey:

    • The innermost part of the thigh;
    • The innermost part of the wing; and,
    • The thickest part of the breast.

Read the temperature to make sure that the bird has reached a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.

Take the turkey out of the oven when it has reached a safe temperature and serve it to your family without worry!

CHILL:  You may want to immediately relax after such an awesome meal, but it’s important to remember to refrigerate any leftovers within 2 hours to avoid bacterial growth. Store your leftovers in shallow containers and cut turkey into smaller pieces to decrease cooling time. Stuffing should be stored separately from the turkey.

Leftovers are safe for 3 to 4 days in the fridge and can be frozen during that time for longer storage. Frozen foods are safe forever if the temperature is 0°F or below. For best quality, use leftovers within 2 to 6 months.

Need Help?

If you have additional questions about cooking a turkey, you can call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskUSDA available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish.

If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline will be open from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time. You can also ask questions 24/7 in English or Spanish at AskUSDA.


Share your thoughts on this blog post on Cancer.Net's Facebook and Twitter.