By: Hwa Jin Chung

Thanksgiving is a time in the year where we get with friends and family, give thanks, and share a delicious meal. Cooking the Thanksgiving meal takes a lot of preparation, and usually it is for a larger group of people than is normally at your dining table. Preparations may also feel rushed if there are a lot of dishes to churn out for many hungry guests. However, it is important to take extra steps of precaution to make sure everything is fully cooked and safe for your loved ones to enjoy.

Before Cooking

Because you are dealing with a variety of different dishes, it is important to wash your hands, utensils and food surfaces frequently. Washing your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before touching foods can prevent the spread of many bacteria and pathogens that can make you ill. When you handle your raw meat or poultry, make sure you wash your hands after before touching other items, especially ready-to-eat foods such as bread or salad. Food borne pathogens from raw meat can be easily spread and cross-contaminate the foods you won’t cook, leading to food poisoning. It is good practice to keep the meat far away from the ready-to-eat foods altogether, to minimize the risk.

As for tools, you should prepare two thermometers to cook the turkey. A refrigerator thermometer will need to be put inside the refrigerator to make sure that the turkey is stored at 40 °F (or slightly below.) The other thermometer should be a food thermometer that you can have with you to check the inside temperature of the turkey to make sure it reaches a safe temperature of 165 °F. You should also make sure all of the ingredients are fresh and safe to cook with. For example, if you purchase a turkey, look for the label. It will let you know whether the turkey is fresh or frozen. Fresh turkey shouldn’t be purchased any more than two days before Thanksgiving.

The Turkey

The main attraction of the Thanksgiving feast, the turkey, is a dish that many love but also don’t have much experience roasting outside of November. According to the CDC, food handling errors and inadequate cooking are the most common issues that cause poultry-associated foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States.

The turkey that you purchase will either be fresh or frozen. As aforementioned, fresh turkey should be cooked and consumed within two days of purchase. If you purchase a frozen turkey, you will have to thaw the bird. The USDA recommends that you thaw the turkey in the refrigerator, which is the safest method. However, it is also the longest method to defrost the turkey, and can take about a day for every four or five pounds of turkey. If you’re running short on time, you can use the cold water method. To defrost the turkey, you can submerge the turkey in cold water that is changed every 30 minutes. This allows you to thaw the bird about 30 minutes for every pound. Whatever method you choose, make sure you don’t leave the turkey on the counter top to defrost. If left on the counter at room temperature for more than two hours, bacteria can grow rapidly as the turkey reaches the temperature danger zone between 40°F and 140°F.

It is also not advisable to wash your turkey, as it can spread bacteria onto kitchen surfaces. Once on the surfaces, it runs the risk of contaminating other foods and kitchen utensils.

To cook the turkey, set the oven temperature to at least 325°F. The turkey should be completely thawed before it goes in the oven. When cooking the turkey, you should make sure to cook the turkey until the internal temperature reaches 165 °F. Keep in mind that heavier turkeys will take longer to cook. You can check the temperature by inserting the food thermometer in three places of the turkey: in the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing. If you have stuffed the turkey, make sure to take the temperature of the center of the stuffing as well. It should reach 165 °F as well.


Do you stuff your turkey, or do you have your stuffing separately? Although it comes down to personal preference, those who stuff their turkey should take extra precautions. The bacteria in the turkey can grow in stuffing, especially if they sit together in the refrigerator. Bacteria won’t be killed unless the stuffing itself reaches an internal temperature of 165 °F.

If you would like to stuff your turkey, do so right before you cook the turkey. Make sure the stuffing itself is also completely cooked before it goes inside the turkey. It is also important not to pack too much stuffing into the turkey, because you want to make sure it’s distributed well enough so everything can cook evenly and properly.

Pumpkin Pie

The last attraction, a delicious pumpkin pie, can wrap up a great Thanksgiving meal. However, even the preparations for sweets and desserts should be handled with care. Like other food items, cook the pumpkin pie thoroughly and keep it in the refrigerator before it’s ready to be served. Eggs and milk can promote bacterial growth if not cooked thoroughly, and if left out, the moisture in these ingredients are a perfect spot for bacteria to multiply.

If you have leftovers from the pie, store the leftovers in the refrigerator. You may have noticed grocery stores leave pumpkin pies safely on the shelves. However, this is because they have preservatives that lengthen their shelf life. Homemade pies should be stored in the refrigerator. If you don’t like your pumpkin pie cold, you can reheat it in the microwave before eating your slice.

The Leftovers

No matter how much you plan and try to cook just enough for your family members, leftovers may sometimes be inevitable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – Thanksgiving leftovers can be consumed and most likely will still be delicious.

Keep leftovers in shallow pans or containers to decrease the cooling time to prevent them from spending too much time at the temperature danger zone (between 40 °F to 140 °F.) If there is turkey leftover, be sure to take out the stuffing and refrigerate it separately. If leftovers are to be taken to-go, make sure to pack them with ice or frozen gel packs, especially for guests who will be driving it somewhere that is more than two hours away.

Make sure to get leftovers into the refrigerator within two hours of food preparation, and refrigerate them at 40°F or colder. Improper storage can lead to the growth of Clostridium perfringens, which are bacteria that multiply on cooked foods left at room temperature. The bacteria is the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning, and its growth can be limited with efficient and careful storage. If store in the refrigerator, leftover Thanksgiving dinners should be eaten only up to four days after Thanksgiving. If you need to store them for a little longer, use the freezer for food storage.

We at UnsafeFoods wish you all a happy, and healthy, Thanksgiving! Happy Feasting!