Food Safety Tips for your Holiday Meal

When you think “Thanksgiving”, what comes to mind?   Turkey!  According the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 46 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the United States at Thanksgiving. That number represents one-sixth of all the turkeys sold in the U.S. each year.  There are a few tips that will ensure that your holiday meal is safe and delicious.

“Thawing and cooking are the two challenges any holiday cook will face,” according to Barbara Ingham, Extension food safety specialist with the University of Wisconsin, Division of Extension.   When thawing the turkey in the refrigerator, the USDA recommends allowing 24 hours for every four to five pounds of meat. For example, a 16 to 20-pound turkey would need at least three or four days to thaw. Some newer, more efficient refrigerators can add a day or two to that time. Turkeys can also be thawed in the microwave, or in a sink filled with cold water—just change the water every 30 minutes.  It’s also possible to cook a turkey directly from the frozen state, adds Ingham.

In addition to the challenge of thawing a turkey, consumers struggle with other questions such as knowing when a turkey is sufficiently cooked, and how to handle leftovers, says Sandy Tarter, FoodWIse Nutrition Coordinator, Division of Extension. 

Tarter recommends cooking your Thanksgiving turkey to an internal temperature of 165°F, as measured with a food thermometer. Check the temperature several places, the thickest part of the breast, the inner thigh, and the wing. Check the temperature of stuffing too.  All turkey meat, including any that remains pink, is safe as soon as all parts reach 165°F, notes Tarter. 

Once thoroughly cooked, proper cooling and handling of leftover is a key food safety step.  “Refrigerate leftovers within two hours,” notes Ingham. Cut turkey into smaller pieces and place in shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Place leftover sauces, dressing, and any side dishes in the refrigerator within two hours as well. Use leftovers within four days or freeze for longer storage.  

Ingham likes to joke that she often refers to leftovers as “planned overs,” with family and guests sometimes preferring meal items reheated or eaten cold the next day.   

Dessert is a part of many holiday meals and pumpkin pie, custard pie and cheesecake must also be handled safely. Bake these festive desserts to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160°F. Once cool, refrigerate until the big meal. Tarter notes that pumpkin or cream pie that you purchase from the market or grocery are also safest stored in the refrigerator once you bring them home. 

Contact your local Division of Extension office to help answer your holiday meal preparation questions. For last minute questions, refer to these holiday hotlines.

USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline1-888-674-68549 am – 5 pm weekdays (Central)7 am – 1 pm Thanksgiving DayEmail: mphotline.fsis@usda.govChat Ask USDA! (English/Spanish)  
Live chat during hotline hours
Butterball Turkey Talk-LineOnline, via phone, even help from Alexa-enabled devices800-288-8372Text 844-877-3456
Jennie-O Turkey HotlineLive chat, via phone, text or social media800-887-5397Text the word Turkey to 73876 

Sandy Tarter is the FoodWIse Nutrition Coordinator for Chippewa, Dunn, and Eau Claire Counties, UW Madison-Division of Extension. She can be reached at 715-232-1636,

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