Thanksgiving Safety: 7 Tips to Avoid Food-Poisoning Your Guests

Thanksgiving turkey dinner
(Image credit: Rosemary Buffoni | Dreamstime)

Blunders in the kitchen on Thanksgiving may lead to more than just soggy mashed potatoes or burnt pumpkin pie — they may make your guests ill.

Here are seven tips to avoid food poisoning this Thanksgiving, and throughout the holiday season:

Wait to add the turkey to your cart

As you make your Thanksgiving grocery store run, don't pick up your frozen turkey until right before you head to checkout, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) says. If you add the turkey to your cart first and then wander the aisles, the turkey may start to thaw. As the meat comes to room temperature, bacteria can grow and multiply, added Roger Clemens, IFT president.

In addition, certain enzymes that degrade the texture of the meat become activated, Clemens said. You should put the bird in the freezer immediately upon arriving home.

Safely thaw the turkey

One to two days before the big meal is the time to place your turkey in the fridge to thaw, says the United States Department of Agriculture. The bird should be placed on a tray to catch juices that may leak out, the USDA notes. That way, you avoid contaminating other foods in the fridge with bacteria from the meat.

You should allow 24 hours of thawing time in the fridge for every four to five pounds of turkey. If you can't wait for the turkey to thaw in the fridge, you can submerge the turkey, still in its original wrapper, in a container of water. You should change the water every 30 minutes, according to the USDA guideline.

Also, never wash your  turkey, said Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University. Washing raw meat or poultry can spread bacteria around your sink and kitchen. Running water can splash off the turkey and contaminate surfaces up to three feet away, Powell said.

Cook your turkey properly Make sure the turkey is thawed before you place it in the oven. If you put a frozen turkey in the oven, the inside won't cook properly and the outside will burn, Clemens said.

To ensure harmful bacteria are killed, the turkey should be cooked so that its internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Use a thermometer to check the bird's temperature in the innermost part of the thigh, the wing and thickest part of the breast, the FDA says.

Avoid cross-contamination

Keep foods that will be cooked, including all raw meat, seafood and eggs, away from any food that won't be cooked, such as lettuce and fruit. This rule should be followed in all environments, from the grocery store, to the fridge to your kitchen counter, the FDA says.

Do not place cooked meat or any foods that will be consumed raw on plates that have held raw meat or eggs, the FDA says, without carefully washing the plates first.

Be careful when you stuff your turkey

Never use frozen stuffing and never stuff a frozen turkey. When making your stuffing, mix wet and dry ingredients separately and combine them right before using, the FDA says. Stuff the turkey right before you place it in the oven.

The stuffing should be cooked until it reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of whether it is in the turkey or not, the FDA says.

Stuffing the turkey can be messy, Powell said. As you handle the raw bird, you contaminate your hands and risk contaminating everything you touch. Because of this, Powell recommended you have the stuffing and other ingredients and utensils you may need ready to go before you begin. Powell said he places the turkey in a pan so it is in a contained space during the stuffing process. When you're done, wash your hands and all other contaminated containers and utensils thoroughly.

For optimum safety, bake your stuffing in a casserole dish, the FDA says.

Produce can be risky too

People tend to think of raw meat as the biggest food-safety hazard at the dinner table, but produce and other raw products can be just as risky, Powell said. Vegetables such as potatoes and carrots are grown in the ground and can be contaminated with soil bacteria. It's important to wash vegetables and properly discard of their peels, Powell said.

Refrigerate leftovers

Don't let your meat and other food sit out at the table for too long. Food that is left out for more than two hours may become contaminated and should be discarded, Clemens said. Putting leftovers in the fridge promptly will ensure they are safe to eat later. When you re-heat your leftovers, make sure you cook them to the right temperature — about 140 to 165 degrees — before consuming.

For more advice, visit the FDA's holiday food safety tips page.

This story was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner. Find us on Facebook.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.