Thanksgiving food safety tips

Mike Genet

Depending on how many seats will be at the dinner table, and how big the bird is, even Tuesday morning might not be too early to start working on the Thanksgiving meal. 

The holiday often includes food not made too often and sometimes by people not experienced in the kitchen. As such, many safety reminders can get overlooked and food-borne illness is possible. For one, how much time food prep can take, especially a frozen turkey. 

Londa Nwadike, food safety expert who works from the University of Missouri Extension office, discusses the importance of allowing time to properly thaw and cook the Thanksgiving turkey.

“If you want to thaw your turkey, you want to make sure you're doing that pretty soon,” says Londa Nwadike, a food safety expert who works from the University of Missouri Extension office in the River Market. Specifically, she recommends 24 hours for every five pounds.  

So, a 10-pound bird needs to start thawing early Tuesday to go into the oven Thursday and be ready for the afternoon. To cook a turkey that size, give yourself about 2 hours, 45 minutes to three hours at 325 degrees. If the turkey is stuffed, add about a half-hour. 

Thawing the turkey in the refrigerator is often recommended, but sitting in a cold-water sink also works, provided one changes the water consistently so it doesn't get too warm and possibly harbor bacteria, Nwadike says. For that method, give yourself 30 minutes for each pound (5 hours for a 10-pound turkey). Definitely do not just leave the turkey sitting out to thaw, as the outside will get too warm while the inside remains frozen.  

“The first time I cooked a turkey by myself, I didn't give enough time,” Nwadike said. “You don't know it's safe (to eat) until it reaches an internal temp of 165. I hadn't left enough time to thaw, so it took longer to cook.” 

Pies and other foods with fillings made from egg and milk need to reach 160 degrees. 

Other important reminders: Use separate cutting boards and knives for vegetables and meats, and separate utensils for raw and cooked items, and have a meat thermometer handy to check the temperature. 

“The last thing you want is someone getting sick on Thanksgiving,” Nwadike said. 

For leftovers, again time is a consideration. 

“I know it's hard if you're hosting; in some ways you'd like to leave the food sitting out to nibble on,” Nwadike said. “You really want to get those back in the fridge in two hours after taking them out.  

Basically, keep food out of the 40-to-140-degree temperature range – cool dishes below 40 degrees and warm dishes above 140. Nwadike encourages home cooks to get the turkey meat off the bones and portion it out for leftovers, rather than just put the whole bird in the refrigerator – the lest the turkey not get cool enough.  

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Some leftovers can last longer in the fridge, but the dressing or stuffing and gravy shouldn't go past two days, she says. If need be, store something in the freezer if it won't be eaten in a few days.  

Nwadike's favorite use of turkey leftovers? A layering of turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes with gravy reheated for a couple hours in a crockpot. 

The pandemic heightened awareness of washing hands, including in the kitchen, for many people, and Thanksgiving food prep certainly presents another good reminder. 

“Covid has really reminded people how important hand washing is, even more with respiratory borne illnesses,” Nwadike said. “People were eating at home a lot more, and we did see a lot fewer food-borne illnesses around the world.