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7 Ways to Avoid Food Poisoning Your Family This Thanksgiving

A group of friends toasting over a meal.
“Here’s to not getting food poisoned by John again this year.” Nattakorn_Maneerat/Shutterstock

The great big feast is right around the corner, which means planning and preparation are in full swing. Here’s how to serve a holiday meal that’s delicious and won’t send your whole family to the hospital.

You’ve heard about the risks of cross-contamination and undercooking meat, but there’s so much more to know—especially when you prepare a huge meal. Let’s take a look at how to stay on top of your food safety game during your busy holiday prep session.

Wash Your Hands

Frequently washing your hands is the best way to limit the transfer of viruses and bacteria. You should wash your hands before you prepare the meal, multiple times during the food prep, and afterward. Normally, it’s not hard to remember to do this, but when you’re rushing through prepping multiple dishes, it’s easy to get sloppy.

Be extra careful when you handle raw meat, like turkey. Always wash your hands before and after you touch raw turkey and other meats, and sanitize your surfaces, too.

As you touch surfaces and objects, germs accumulate on your hands. Need to check your phone for a recipe? A study at the University of Arizona found that cell phones carry 10 times more bacteria than toilet seats. So, disinfect your hands and your phone, too.

Make Room in Your Fridge

At least a few days before Thanksgiving, it’s super helpful to clean out your fridge. Throw old or expired food away to make room for upcoming food stashes.

Use coolers with ice to store soda, beer, and other drinks, so you have more than enough room to store food in the fridge on the big day. You can store premade dishes in your refrigerator to keep them out of the temperature danger zone, which is 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Your best bet is to quickly cool foods as much as possible before you store them in the fridge, and it will do the rest. Some people store their food outside if it’s very cold, but this isn’t safe or reliable. The best place is your temperature-regulated fridge.

Defrost the Turkey in the Refrigerator

If you’ve purchased a frozen turkey, you need plenty of time to thaw it out safely. There are a few ways to do this, but the safest is to thaw it out in a temperature-controlled refrigerator.

Allow approximately 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey. For example, if you’ve purchased a 15-pound turkey, it will take at least three days to thaw out safely. Good thing you cleaned out that fridge!

Leave the bird in its original wrapping and place it breast-side up in a baking pan to prevent any drippings from contaminating the shelf or other food in the fridge. After it’s completely thawed, your turkey will hold for up to two days, so don’t thaw it too far in advance.

Don’t Wash the Turkey

Hands washing a raw turkey in a sink.
See this? Don’t do it. Vezzani Photography/Shutterstock

You might have been told otherwise, but rinsing meat is unnecessary. Once it hits high temperatures, any bacteria are killed in the process.

When you wash a turkey (or any meat), it causes more problems than it solves. No matter how careful you are, you’ll inevitably splash and spread bacteria to other surfaces and objects in your kitchen.

How to Safely Handle Raw Meat

Raw turkey might contain salmonella, and it can cause severe food poisoning if it’s not handled carefully. Before and after you touch raw turkey, it’s vital that you thoroughly wash your hands and sanitize all surfaces.

Be careful when you remove the plastic packaging and prevent the juices from spreading. Make sure there are no clean utensils or ready-to-eat foods nearby.

After you remove the plastic and place the bird in the roasting pan, thoroughly wash and sanitize the counter. First, wash the surface with soap and water, and then sanitize with an all-purpose cleaner or bleach solution and paper towels.

Don’t Make Meals Too Far in Advance

Premade meals are incredibly helpful when you have so much to prepare for an event, and we totally recommend you make a few for Thanksgiving. However, if you prepare and cook meals too far in advance, it can land your family in the hospital.

According to the USDA Cold Food Storage Guide, most cooked meats (depending on what they are), as well as cooked dinners and entrees, last anywhere between three to four days. This means you should avoid cooking and refrigerating meals a week or more in advance.

For absolute freshness and quality, try to premake any meals or dishes the day before the holiday. This will ensure everything is safe for consumption and taste great, too.

Use a Thermometer

You’ve probably heard of many ways to check whether meat is thoroughly cooked. However, the only reliable and safe way to check is with a thermometer. Foods must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature to ensure all harmful microorganisms are destroyed, and the meal is safe to eat.

To check the internal temperature, insert a clean thermometer into the thickest part of the meat or turkey. Make sure the tip is away from the bone, fat, or gristle. You can use the dimple as a guide. Leave the thermometer in until the temperature stops rising; this usually takes about 10 to 20 seconds.

Here are a few minimum internal temperatures for various dishes that are considered safe, but you can cook these foods longer if you prefer:

  • Turkey and chicken: 165 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Ham (Fresh): 145 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Pre-cooked ham (to reheat): 140 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Stuffing (cooked alone or stuffed): 165 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Casseroles: 165 degrees Fahrenheit

Even if you don’t normally use a thermometer to check food temperatures, Thanksgiving is a great day to play it extra safe.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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