Holiday Safe Food Tips

Part of the excitement of the holidays are the traditional foods of the season. However, some of these foods can pose hazards that can ruin more than just a holiday meal -- they can cause serious illness and even death. Here are some tips on how to enjoy these foods safely:


Save the best for last. Preparing a turkey takes a bit of planning, especially during the hectic holiday season. Before buying your turkey, make room in your refrigerator and find a platter big enough for the uncooked turkey so any leaking juices won’t contaminate other foods in the refrigerator. At the store, buy the turkey last, put it in a separate plastic bag to avoid contaminating other foods, and refrigerate it immediately when you get home. If you are combining food shopping with other holiday shopping, make the grocery store the last stop so food will not be left in the car while you are searching for the perfect gifts.

The big turkey thaw. If buying a frozen turkey, the safest way to defrost it is in the refrigerator, but allow 24 hours of defrosting time for every 5 pounds of turkey. For Thanksgiving, that means a 20 pound frozen turkey needs to start defrosting on Sunday. Don’t defrost the turkey on the counter. If you are using a microwave to defrost, cook the turkey as soon as it is thawed. Turkeys wrapped in leak-proof plastic can be defrosted in cold water, but the water should be changed every 30 minutes and allow 30 minutes of defrosting per pound of turkey. Buy your fresh turkey only one to two days before you plan to cook it.

Clear the decks. Before preparing the turkey, clear and thoroughly clean the counter, as well as the cooking equipment which you may not have used since preparing last year’s turkey. Clean immediately with hot, soapy water anything, including sponges and hands, that touches the raw turkey or juice. Sanitize sponges by running them through your dishwasher.

Just check it. When cooking a turkey, use a meat thermometer. Even if you use a "pop-up" thermometer, it’s a good idea to check the temperature with a meat thermometer, such as an oven-safe, dial instant-read, or digital thermometer. If you don’t have one, pick one up at the grocery store as you’re searching for holiday items. Set the oven no lower than 325 F and cook the turkey to 180 F, taking the reading in the thick part of the thigh. Here are approximate cooking times for turkey, but use a meat thermometer to verify doneness:

Weight (Pounds) Unstuffed Cooking Time (Hours) Stuffed Cooking Time (Hours)
8 to 12 2 to 3 3 to 3
12 to 14 3 to 3 3 to 4
14 to 18 3 to 4 4 to 4
18 to 20 4 to 4 4 to 4
20 to 24 4 to 5 4 to 5
Source: USDA, "Turkey Basics: Safe Cooking," revised November 1998.

Calibrate before you celebrate. Before you put that thermometer in the turkey, take a minute to calibrate it in a cup of crushed ice topped off with tap water. Put the tip in the ice water at least two inches deep but without touching either the side or bottom of the cup. Then, check that it reads 32 F after 30 seconds.

Heat those take-out turkeys. More and more busy Americans are opting to buy hot pre-cooked turkeys for their holiday meal. Be sure to keep a "take-out" turkey at 140 F or above if you will be eating it within two hours of picking it up. If you will be eating the turkey more than two hours later or if you buy a cold pre-cooked turkey, you should dismantle your feast and refrigerate it. Remove the stuffing from the bird and cut the turkey off the bone. Wings and legs can be left whole. Refrigerate all the food, including any side dishes, in separate shallow containers. Reheat food to 165 F and boil gravy.

The holiday banquet. Your efforts have paid off. The turkey is beautiful and your guests are duly impressed. To keep the food safe while it being served, leave it out for no longer than two hours. If you’re having a buffet, don’t serve all the food at once. Keep the second and third servings either hot at or above 140 F in the oven or cold in the refrigerator. To prevent contamination, put additional food out on clean platters instead of adding it to platters already on the table.


To stuff or not to stuff. For many people stuffing is the best part of the turkey, but it must be carefully prepared because it is warm and moist -- a perfect environment for bacteria to grow in. Stuffing can be contaminated by bacteria from eggs and shellfish in the stuffing or the turkey itself. The safest way to cook stuffing is on the stove or in the oven, but separate from the turkey. If cooking the stuffing inside the bird, loosely stuff the turkey just before you stick it in the oven with cup stuffing per pound of turkey. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches 165 F. A "pop-up" thermometer that comes with a turkey won’t tell you the temperature of the stuffing. If the stuffing is not fully cooked, but the turkey is done, remove the stuffing and heat it up on the stove top to 165 F. Avoid pre-stuffed fresh turkeys.


Mull that cider. Unpasteurized apple cider is another holiday food that may contain harmful bacteria. A warning label on the container will indicate if it is unpasteurized. If serving cider to the elderly, children, or those with weakened immune systems, buy pasteurized apple cider. If you want to buy unpasteurized cider or are unsure if the cider is pasteurized, mull the cider by heating it to 160 F or boiling it if you don’t have a thermometer. Serve it warm or cold.


"P" is for pasteurized. If homemade, this creamy treat could be contaminated with bacteria sometimes found in raw eggs. To be sure the eggnog is safe, use pasteurized egg products or buy ready-made eggnog, which is pasteurized. If you want to make eggnog with whole eggs safely, gradually heat the egg-milk mixture to 160 F or until it coats a metal spoon.


Don’t steal the dough. Although it’s almost too tempting for children and many adults, homemade cookie dough can no longer be sampled safely. Just like in eggnog, raw whole eggs in cookie dough, cake batter, or frosting may contain harmful bacteria. If you just can’t make desserts without sneaking some dough or batter, use pasteurized egg products in place of whole eggs.


Chop leftovers down to size. Holiday meals usually mean lots of leftovers. Although you may not feel like doing much after a big meal, be sure to refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of cooking the food. Separate leftovers into shallow containers. Turkey should be removed from the bone and stored separately from the stuffing and gravy. Use turkey and stuffing within 3-4 days, except gravy which should be used within 1-2 days. If that seems like an impossible feat, freeze the leftovers.

Make the holidays last. To serve the feast again, reheat leftovers to 165 F and boil soups, sauces, and gravies.

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