7 Essential Thanksgiving Food Safety Rules to Avoid Getting Anyone Sick

Whether cooking a turkey for the first time or just reheating takeout, following these smart steps is smarter than ever.

Whether hosting a traditional celebration, an outdoor dinner party, your first family get-together, or a two-person feast, food safety should be at the forefront of your mind. But even the most experienced Thanksgiving dinner hosts ought to keep in mind the mistakes that could put their guests at risk. The secret to healthy hosting is easy: Come prepared.

We spoke with Tamika Sims, Ph.D., senior director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council, and FDA public affairs specialist Veronika Pfaeffle, about the dos and don'ts of Thanksgiving food safety.

01 of 07

Do Defrost the Turkey Safely

It Turns Out You Actually CAN Microwave a Turkey
Getty, EasyBuy4u / Getty, Maren Caruso

One of the most dangerous mistakes you can make is using the wrong method to defrost your main dish. If turkey, chicken, duck, roast beef, ham, or lamb are front and center on the holiday dinner table, you may have purchased your meat well in advance—and frozen it. Using the proper defrosting technique is essential. The key is planning.

"The USDA's FSIS advises that the proper way to thaw a turkey or any other type of meat is to not leave it out at room temperature or anywhere it might fluctuate in temperature," explains Sims. "There are three ways to defrost a turkey properly: in a refrigerator, in cold water, or in a microwave."

Also, when storing the turkey (or other meat or poultry) ahead of time, make sure it's wrapped securely to maintain quality and to prevent meat juices from getting onto other food.

02 of 07

Don't Wash Your Turkey

Using vinegar and hot water to sanitize sponges

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

In a study from 2019, the USDA found that 60 percent of kitchen sinks were contaminated with germs after participants washed or rinsed poultry. "To avoid this cross-contamination risk, do not wash your turkey," says Pfaeffle. "But if you do, fully clean and sanitize your sink."

03 of 07

Don't Eat Raw Dough, or Anything With Raw Eggs or Flour

egg wash for pie crust

The Spruce / Diana Rattray

"While we often recommend using clean utensils, cooking foods to their proper temperatures, and storing foods properly to help to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, there's an additional very important food safety fact to cling to," says Sims. "Do not consume raw foods that are designed to be cooked before eating them. This includes raw cookie dough (and other raw dough), flour, and raw eggs."

Flour is an agricultural product designed to be cooked before it's eaten. "This means that some bacterial contaminants from the grains used to produce the flour can still remain in the product before it is cooked, namely Escherichia coli (E. coli)," she says. Consuming harmful strains of E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, pneumonia, and other illnesses as well.

And eating raw eggs, which can harbor Salmonella bacteria, might cause vomiting, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal pain.

04 of 07

Don't Leave Perishable Foods Out for Longer Than 2 Hours

Canned vegetables in opened tin cans on kitchen table. Non-perishable long shelf life foods background
OlenaMykhaylova/Getty Images

"Once the food is set out and ready for consumption, use covered chafing dishes or warming trays to keep hot foods hot, and ice or another cold source to keep cold foods cold," Sims explains. Otherwise, food can enter what the USDA calls the danger zone, between 40° F and 140° F, where bacteria quickly multiply. Never leave perishable foods in the danger zone for more than two hours, or one hour if it's above 90°F. After time's up, refrigerate or freeze the food that's been sitting out.

05 of 07

Do Use a Meat Thermometer

KIZEN Digital Meat Thermometer with Probe
Courtesy of Amazon

Eating raw or undercooked poultry (and meat) can lead to foodborne illness—which can be serious. "Symptoms of related foodborne illnesses can vary from person to person," says Sims. "But they're usually associated with nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting (plus dehydration in many cases). Long-term illnesses can occur from bacterial infections, too."

"After your turkey is ready to be baked or fried, you should plan to cook it to a minimum internal temperature of 165° F (as measured with a food thermometer) to destroy any bacteria, which reduces the risk of foodborne illness," says Pfaeffle.

She says to check that poultry has reached 165° F in three parts: the breast's thickest part, the wing's innermost part, and the thigh's innermost part. "Even if the turkey has a pop-up temperature indicator, you should still use a food thermometer to check that the bird has reached at least 165° F in those three places," she adds. And if you're cooking a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, check for 165° F at the thickest part of the breast.

06 of 07

Do Reheat Leftovers and Takeout Properly

Storing Leftovers for Lunch
Brett Stevens/Gety Images

While Thanksgiving dinner is the main event, the days (and leftovers) that follow are equally important when it comes to food safety. And that's still valid even if you order food to-go instead of cooking from scratch.

Now that you know to refrigerate your turkey and other perishable foods within two hours after serving, check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer with an appliance thermometer. The correct refrigerator and freezer temperatures are 40° F or below and 0° F or below.

"Store leftovers in small, shallow containers in the refrigerator only until the Monday after Thanksgiving Day, or in the freezer for later use," recommends Pfaeffle. (Shallow containers help cool leftovers more quickly than large ones). If you freeze leftover turkey, it'll keep up to four months.

When reheating, retake temperatures just as you did the first time. "You should be reheating your leftovers to an internal temperature of 165° F. Check the internal temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer after allowing a resting time," she adds.

07 of 07

Do Remember the USDA's 4 Steps to Food Safety

G1 - Food Safety

The USDA recommends these four basic food safety steps:

  1. Clean: Clean hands, surfaces, and utensils with soap and warm water before cooking. Wash hands for 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and poultry. After cleaning surfaces raw poultry has touched, apply a sanitizer.
  2. Separate: Use separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils to avoid cross-contamination between raw meat or poultry and foods that are ready to eat.
  3. Cook: Confirm foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature using a food thermometer. Turkey should be cooked to 165° F, measured in three places—the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh, and the innermost part of the wing.
  4. Chill: Chill foods promptly if not consumed immediately after cooking. Don't leave food at room temperature for longer than two hours.

For advice about how to safely prepare turkey and other menu items this Thanksgiving, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety expert at ask.usda.gov from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday. For last-minute help on Thanksgiving Day, the hotline is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET.

For the latest food safety tips, visit FoodSafety.gov or follow USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on Twitter @USDAFoodSafety or Facebook at Facebook.com/FoodSafety.gov.

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Sources
Real Simple is committed to using high-quality, reputable sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we fact check our content for accuracy.
  1. USDA. Food safety consumer research project: Meal preparation experiment related to poultry washing.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. E. Coli - Questions and Answers.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Salmonella - Symptoms.

  4. USDA, "Danger Zone". Accessed December 13, 2022.

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