What NOT to Do With Thanksgiving Dinner

TurkeyNo one wants to share Thanksgiving dinner with unwanted, invisible visitors—the kind that can sneak in and cause food-borne illness. But you can keep bacterial growth at bay by following these recommendations from food safety experts.





  • DON’T leave a frozen turkey on the counter to defrost. Thaw it in the refrigerator or in cold water (changed every 30 minutes). A small bird can also be defrosted in the microwave, but this doesn’t work well unless you turn the bird every 3-5 minutes because otherwise the wing tips will get “cooked.”

  • DON’T stuff your turkey. Even though it’s traditional, most food safety experts advise against it. Here’s one reason: the bird may reach the safe temperature while the stuffing is still at a lower temperature, one at which bacteria still thrive. If you are determined to stuff your turkey despite this advice, take these precautions: 1. Let the stuffing cool before inserting it in the raw turkey.  2. Take the temperature of the stuffing (as well as the turkey). Don’t assume the stuffing is hot enough when the bird is. Both should be at least 165°F, the temperature at which bacteria are no longer a threat. (Note: for good quality, 170º is better for white meat and 180°F for dark meat.)

  • DON’T depend upon a turkey’s pop-up thermometer to tell you it’s safe to eat. It doesn’t go deep enough into the turkey. Use a meat thermometer with a probe about 6 inches long. Take the temperature of the bird in three places: the innermost part of the thigh, the wing, and the thickest part of the breast. Don’t assume your turkey is safe to eat when the meat no longer looks red and the juices are clear. Trust only the thermometer.

  • DON’T cook every cranberry in the package. If you’re making your own cranberry sauce, use only berries that are red or yellowish red; discard any that are wrinkled or have blemishes. By the way, you can buy cranberries up to 4 weeks in advance if you’re afraid the supermarket might run out. Store them in the refrigerator crisper or freeze.

  • DON’T wash fruits and vegetables before refrigerating them or storing them in a cabinet or on the counter. That encourages mold growth. However, be sure to wash all fruit and vegetables well (including your sweet potatoes and pumpkin for a pie) just before serving or cooking them. (Rinse under cool water.) Even if the outside of a fruit or vegetable is not going to be consumed, it should still be washed to remove dirt and other contaminants. Otherwise, these may get into the interior flesh that is going to be eaten when you cut the produce.

  • DON’T leave the cooked bird or any other perishable food (items that need refrigeration) on the table for more than 2 hours. Following this rule will protect your holiday entrée from pathogens that cause food to spoil (taste, smell, or look bad) and, possibly, also from those that cause illness.

  • DON’T put a big chunk of warm leftovers into the fridge. Cut the remaining meat off the turkey, remove the stuffing, and discard the carcass within 2 hours of serving. Divide other leftovers (stuffing, vegetable casserole, etc.) into smaller quantities, and place them in shallow dishes. Stored that way, the food will cool faster and, therefore, be less likely to become contaminated.

  • DON’T reheat the same leftovers more than once. Every time food goes through the 40°F-140°F “danger zone,” pathogens have an opportunity to grow. Therefore, when you do reheat them, get out that thermometer and be sure they reach 165°F. Remember, they’ve been through that danger zone twice, once when cooling down in the fridge and once while reheating on the stove or in the oven.

  • DON’T keep your refrigerated leftovers more than 3 days. That’s the general rule, and it should be followed with all foods containing animal products. Vegetables—especially beans, sweet potatoes, and corn—will last a few days longer.

  • DON’T wrap leftover vegetables tightly. Leave some airspace around them. Air prevents the development of spores that can cause botulism.

  • DON’T save your frozen leftovers for next Thanksgiving. The maximum recommended range for good quality is 2-6 months.

For more information about turkey, click here:


For more informaation about corn, click here:



USDA Fact Sheets “Let’s Talk Turkey—A Consumer Guide to Safely Roasting A Turkey”


Susan Brewer, Ph.D., University of Illinois, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition


Food Alert by Morton Satin, second edition, 2008.



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