Whether you’ll be cooking a turkey for the first time or just reheating takeout, following this Thanksgiving food safety guide from experts at the IFIC and the USDA's FSIS is more critical than ever.

By Betty Gold
November 12, 2020
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By now, we’re all well aware that Thanksgiving dinner is going to look quite different this year. Whether you’re contemplating hosting an outdoor dinner party, dining with friends digitally, or hosting your own two-person feast, the travel restrictions, shorter guest lists, and safe social distancing recommendations from the CDC indicate that a lot more Americans are going to be cooking their own Turkey Day dinner at home this holiday season.

For many, this will mean cooking turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie from scratch for the first time. If you're intimidated, you can always order Thanksgiving dinner ahead of time—but we’re considering this new cooking endeavor as a joyful side effect of the times.

Credit: Getty Images

However, there are several food safety mistakes that even the most experienced Thanksgiving dinner hosts unknowingly make that can put guests at risk for food poisoning. Add in novice cooking skills and lots of leftover food that must be safely reheated and you’ve got yourself an even stickier situation. The answer is easy: come prepared. We spoke with Tamika Sims, PhD, senior director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council, and Veronika Pfaeffle, public affairs specialist in the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), about the most common Thanksgiving food safety dos and don'ts.

Do: Defrosting Turkey Safely

Choosing the wrong method to defrost your main dish is one the most dangerous mistakes you can make. Turkey is often front and center on the dinner table this time of year, and so are other types of poultry and meat (like chicken, duck, roast beef, ham, and lamb). According to Sims, if you purchase these items in advance of your holiday celebration, the safest way to keep them fresh and safe before you are ready to cook them is by freezing. Afterwards, proper defrosting techniques are needed to ensure quality and safety.

The key here? Planning ahead. “The USDA's FSIS advises that the proper way to thaw a turkey or any other type of meat is to NOT leave it out at room temperature or anywhere else that might fluctuate in temperature,” explains Sims. “There are three ways to defrost a turkey properly: in a refrigerator, in cold water, or in a microwave.” Additionally, when storing the turkey (or other meat/poultry) ahead of time, it should be wrapped securely to maintain quality and to prevent meat juices from getting onto other food.

Don't: Wash Your Turkey

In a recent study, the USDA found that 60 percent of kitchen sinks were contaminated with germs after participants washed or rinsed poultry. “To avoid this cross-contamination risk, do not wash your turkey,” says Pfaeffle. “However, if you do wash your turkey or put your turkey in the sink, you need to fully clean and sanitize your sink.”

Don't: Eat Raw Cookie Dough (or Anything Else With Raw Eggs or Flour)

“Baking often also picks up during the holidays. And while we often recommend safe food-handling practices like using clean utensils, cooking foods to their proper temperatures, and storing foods properly to help reduce the risk of foodborne illness, an additional VERY important food safety fact to cling to is not consuming raw foods that are designed to be cooked before eating them,” says Sims. This includes raw cookie dough and other raw dough, which is linked to the safe handling and consumption of flour and eggs.

According to Sims, flour is an agricultural food product that is designed to be cooked before it is consumed. “This means that some bacterial contaminants from the grains used to produce the flour can still remain in the product before it is cooked, namely Escherichia coli (E. coli). Consumption of harmful strains of E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, pneumonia, and other illnesses as well.” This same line of food safety reasoning should be used when avoiding eating raw eggs. Raw eggs can harbor Salmonella bacteria. Salmonella infections can cause many symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal pain, Sims says.

Don't: Leave Perishable Foods Out for Longer Than Two Hours

“Once food is set out and ready for consumption, you should consider using covered chafing dishes or warming trays to keep hot foods hot, and ice or other cold source to keep cold foods cold,” Sims explains. Otherwise, food may enter what the USDA calls the “danger zone,” between 40° and 140°F, where bacteria quickly multiply. Never leave perishable foods in the “danger zone” for more than two hours; one hour in temperatures above 90°F. After two hours, food that has been sitting out should be put away in your fridge or freezer.

Do: Use a Thermometer When Cooking Meat—and Remember the Number 165°F

Eating raw or undercooked poultry (and meat) can lead to foodborne illness—which can be very serious in some cases. According to Sims, foodborne illness from undercooked or raw poultry can be caused by Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella. “Symptoms of related foodborne illnesses can vary from person to person, but are usually associated with nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting (plus dehydration in many cases). Long-term illnesses can occur from bacterial infections, too.”

“After your turkey is ready to be baked or fried, you should plan to cook it to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F—as measured with a food thermometer—to destroy any bacteria, which reduces the risk of foodborne illness,” says Pfaeffle. She says to check that the temperature has reached 165°F in three parts: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh. “Even if the turkey has a pop-up temperature indicator, you should still use a food thermometer to check that the bird has reached at least 165°F in those three places,” she adds. And if you’re planning to cook a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, check the temperature with the food thermometer (165°F) at the thickest part the breast.

Do: Reheat Leftovers and Takeout Properly to Avoid Dangerous Bacteria

Thanksgiving dinner is the main event, but the days (and leftovers) that follow are equally important when it comes to food safety. If you ordered food to-go instead of cooking everything from scratch, this is vital too. Again, remember to refrigerate your turkey and other perishable foods within two hours after serving, and check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer with an appliance thermometer first. The refrigerator should be at 40°F or below and the freezer at 0°F or below.

“Store leftovers in small, shallow containers in the refrigerator only until the Monday after Thanksgiving Day or in the freezer for later use,” recommends Pfaeffle. If you freeze your turkey, the leftovers can be kept up to four months. Keep in mind that shallow containers help cool leftovers more quickly than storing them in large containers.

And don’t forget to take temperatures, just as you did when you were cooking the first time around. “You should be reheating your leftovers to an internal temperature of 165°F. Check the internal temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer after allowing a resting time,” she adds.

Do: Practice Safe Social Distancing Guidelines

“Since the virus that causes COVID-19, like many other germs, spreads mainly through person-to-person contact, your most important line of defense against germ transfer is to practice appropriate social distancing,” Sims says. “Keeping six feet apart, having fewer than 10 people at your event, and attending gatherings outside are all ways to enjoy socializing in a safe manner.” Think about sitting outside on a patio for gatherings, too (with heat lamps if it gets chilly).  

Another great way to minimize contact is to think about how food and beverages are served when gathering. When hosting or attending events, Sims recommends avoiding buffet-style meals and opting for pre-prepped personal portions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Instead of sharing beverages, bring your own beverage to reduce ‘buffet-drinking.’ “While there is no current evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 by food, you should still always practice safe food–handling principles to reduce germ transfer and your risk of foodborne illness,” she explains.

Do: Remember the USDA’s Four Steps to Food Safety (Especially When Cooking With Little Ones)

  1. Clean: Clean hands, surfaces, and utensils with soap and warm water before cooking. Wash hands for 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and poultry. After cleaning surfaces raw poultry has touched, apply a sanitizer.
  2. Separate: Use separate cutting boards, plates and utensils to avoid cross-contamination between raw meat or poultry and foods that are ready to eat.
  3. Cook: Confirm foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature by using a food thermometer. Turkey should be cooked to 165°F, as measured in three places—the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing.
  4. Chill: Chill foods promptly if not consuming immediately after cooking. Don’t leave food at room temperature for longer than two hours.

For advice about how to safely prepare the turkey and all other menu items this Thanksgiving, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety expert at ask.usda.gov from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday. If you need last-minute help on Thanksgiving Day, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time.

Visit FoodSafety.gov or follow USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on Twitter @USDAFoodSafety or on Facebook at Facebook.com/FoodSafety.gov for the latest food safety tips.

This story originally appeared on realsimple.com