This Holiday, Give Thanks for Safe Food – National Consumers League

By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Thanksgiving unites families and friends to enjoy each other’s company and focus on that for which they are grateful, but the large holiday dinner can also invite foodborne illness, without the proper precautions. Reduce your family’s risks by following a few simple tips before, during, and after your holiday meal.

Before the Meal

Thawing the Turkey

  • If buying a frozen turkey, remember that whole turkeys take approximately 24 hours to thaw in the refrigerator for every four to five pounds of weight (ex: a ten pound bird will require two full days to thaw). Thawing in the refrigerator is the safest option and results in the best finished product. Place the turkey in a shallow pan on a refrigerator shelf, leaving the bird in its original packaging.
  • If absolutely necessary, it is possible to thaw your turkey in cold water. Leave the bird in its original packaging and submerge it in a clean sink or pan filled with cold water. The turkey will thaw at a rate of approximately 30 minutes per pound, and the water should be changed every 30 minutes. Immediately cook the turkey as soon as it is thawed. Never leave a turkey on the counter to defrost.
  • Purchasing a fresh turkey eliminates the need to thaw; however, fresh turkeys should be purchased no more than one to two days before the meal and should be kept refrigerated until cooking.

Preparing for Cooking and Leftovers

  • Make room in your refrigerator for ingredients, and plan your menu – and your guests’ contributions – accordingly. Ideally, ask guests to bring items that do not require refrigeration.
  • Have plenty of paper towels or clean cloth towels available for cleaning surfaces, blotting rinsed fruit and vegetables, and drying hands.
  • Have plenty of storage containers with lids on hand for safely saving leftovers.


  • Always wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds, both before and after handling food items, particularly raw ones.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, paying particular attention to those that will not be cooked.


  • Keep raw poultry, meat, and eggs away from other foods to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Clean all surfaces that come in contact with raw meat or poultry – such as cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and countertops – with hot, soapy water or a bleach solution.
  • If marinating raw meat or poultry, discard any unused marinade.
  • Use a meat thermometer to determine when your turkey or other items have been cooked to a safe temperature. Whole birds and chicken breasts should be cooked to 165˚F, egg dishes and pork to 160˚F, and steaks and roasts to 145˚F. When checking the internal temperature of a turkey, insert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, avoiding the bone. Also check the temperatures in the thickest part of the breast, as well as in the innermost part of the thigh and wing, ensuring that all areas have reached a minimum of 165˚F. Approximate cooking times for stuffed and unstuffed birds of various sizes are available at

During the Meal


  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold – dishes should remain in the oven or refrigerator until your guests sit down to dinner.
  • Hot foods should be at least 140˚F and cold foods 40˚F or cooler.


  • Time your dinner and dessert appropriately so that leftovers sit out for as short a time as possible – in as little as two hours, foods left at room temperature can grow harmful bacteria.

After the Meal


  • Leftovers should be refrigerated as quickly as possible. Anything not refrigerated within two hours should be thrown away.
  • Hot foods should be stored in shallow containers with lids. It is fine to put items in the refrigerator while they are still warm.
  • Remove stuffing from the bird and carve any extra meat from the bones before storing leftover turkey.
  • Never put leftover condiments, such as ketchup or pickles, back into their original containers.
  • Leftovers stored in the fridge should be consumed within three to four days. Cooked turkey can be stored in the freezer for three to four months. When reheating leftovers, ensure that foods reach 165˚F throughout.