The Bird, the Sides and the Leftovers: Food Safety for Thanksgiving

CDC estimates one in six Americans contract a foodborne illness every year; keep your Thanksgiving happy and healthy.

Christopher Sanew
November 25, 2019

The holidays are officially upon us. Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a long-awaited season full of all the good things, especially family, friends and food. One thing nobody looks forward to, however, is a foodborne illness.

The CDC says about 48 million people contract some form of food poisoning every year. Common symptoms include upset stomach, nausea, vomiting and cramps, and food poisoning can run the gamut from unpleasant (staph, clostridium perfringens) to potentially life-threatening (salmonella, botulism). Even “mild” foodborne illness can wreak havoc, and nobody wants wind up sick – or in the emergency room – over the holidays.

These simple tips – for Thanksgiving or any time – can help keep you and your loved ones safe.

Bird Basics
Fresh turkeys are easy to deal with because they don’t require defrosting, but many Americans purchase frozen birds. So, how do you defrost it?

Give yourself some time; it’s not something you can do a couple of hours before guests arrive. The best way to thaw is in the refrigerator (40 degrees F or below). Foodsafe.gov has a convenient table with weights and times. For example, a 12-16 lb. turkey will take three to four days.

If you’re pressed for time, you can defrost the bird in cold water. The same size turkey would take 6-8 hours, but there are some caveats. The water must be changed every 30 minutes (in commercial food service, it’s done under a stream of running water) and the thawed bird must be cooked immediately. This works better for smaller birds or cuts, like a breast.

Foodsafe.gov also provides a table for cooking times. A 12-16 lb. turkey will take between 3 and 3 3/4 hours at 325 degrees to get to the proper safe internal temperature for poultry, 165 degrees. If the same size bird is stuffed, that bumps up to 3 1/2 to 4 hours; remember the stuffing must also reach 165 degrees.

Serving a different protein? The same link covers other birds, beef, lamb, pork and ham products.

Safe Sides and Storage
What’s Thanksgiving without all those great sides? If you can still manage, one of the best parts of the day is going back for a few more bites. But if the spread is left out too long, even if it’s sweet potato casserole or tofu turkey, you might be risking foodborne illness.

Time and temperature are the two biggest factors in food safety. Once food reaches the danger zone, between 41 and 140 degrees, bacteria can multiply fast, doubling in number in just 20 minutes. A single bacteria cell can grow to one million in about 5 hours.

The CDC states that food should not be left out for more than two hours (one hour if the outside temperature is above 90 degrees, for those already thinking about summer). At that point, leftovers should be refrigerated or discarded. Pass on that last deviled egg at 6 p.m. if the tray was put out at noon.

Leftover Love
If you’re ready to go back for more, the rules are simple. You can refrigerate leftovers for up to four days; after that it’s time to freeze or discard. As for eating, if you’re a fan of cold leftovers straight from the fridge, go for it, but if you’re reheating your meal, make sure it reaches 165 degrees.

Hopefully, these tips will help you keep foodborne illness away from your holidays, and the biggest discomfort you’ll have is deciding whether you should have a second slice of pie. (Go for it).

Happy Thanksgiving!

Christopher Sanew

Christopher Sanew is a web content specialist with the National Safety Council and a certified food protection manager.

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