Give Thanks for a Healthy Holiday: Tips for Safe Food Preparation and Storage


3 a.m.: Its the morning after Thanksgiving, and you have a hankering for a snack. Delving into the fridge crammed with mysterious mounds of foil, you locate the turkey, then reach for the gravy, now wearing a layer of skin so thick you could walk across it. Ah, a gluttonous slice of heaven.

7 a.m.: Your stomach is reeling. Why youre swearing that youll never eat again, however, has less to do with your choice of snacks than how long that stuffing and gravy sat out on your counter yesterday before you placed it in the fridge.

How quickly you put those leftovers away—and how you store them—will determine how much love those gallons of turkey soup will be giving you and your family for weeks or months to come. Print out these pointers for keeping your feast safe.

Raw whole turkey: Place raw turkey on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator (at or below 40°) in its original wrapper to thaw (avoid placing the turkey on a higher shelf, as juices could drip onto foods below and generate bacterial growth and, subsequently, foodborne illness). Raw whole turkey will keep in the refrigerator for 1-2 days; in the freezer, for 12 months.

Raw turkey breast: Raw turkey breast will keep in the refrigerator for 1-2 days; in the freezer, for 3 months.

Cooking temperature: The turkey industry discourages roasting your bird overnight at low temperatures; anything less than 325° could encourage the growth of harmful bacteria.

Doneness: If the meat looks pink, that doesnt necessarily mean its not safe to eat. The only reliable indicator of doneness you have is your thermometer. The USDA recommends taking your turkeys temperature in several places, including the wing joint and thigh. Both stuffed and unstuffed turkeys should reach 180° when a meat thermometer is placed deep in the thigh. Juices should run clear, not reddish-pink. If your turkey is stuffed, take its temperature in the center of the stuffing; it should be a minimum of 160°. Before you remove the stuffing and begin carving, “rest” your turkey for 15 to 20 minutes, which not only allows for “carryover cooking” (giving the stuffing time to climb to 165°), but it also gives the juices in the meat time to redistribute—resulting in a more succulent turkey.

After cooking: If dinner is still a few hours away and your turkey is done, remove it from the oven, cover with foil and clean dish towels to hold in the heat, and lower the temperature of your oven to between 150° and 200°. Keep your bird covered with foil, and place him back in the oven to stay warm until dinnertime.

Pies and custards: Bake pumpkin pies, custard pies, and all foods made with eggs and milk to at least 160°, and refrigerate them after baking.

Platter/plate size: Dish out your food on small platters, and leave the rest in the oven (set at 200° to 250°) or refrigerator until ready to serve. Small plates also help keep hot foods hot (140° or higher) and cold foods cold (40° or less).

Buffets: If youre eating buffet-style, retain heat and cold with slow-cookers, warming trays, and chafing dishes, or bowls of ice. To avoid cross-contamination from dirty hands and lukewarm surfaces, replace the platters each time you set out more food.

Set a timer: No food should sit at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Anything left out longer should be discarded.

Carve the leftovers: Avoid refrigerating a cooked turkey whole; it will take too long to cool down to a safe temperature. Leftover turkey should be carved from the bone and the stuffing removed before it is stored.

Proper containers: The National Turkey Federation recommends storing leftover turkey in shallow containers (which encourage rapid, even cooling) and refrigerated or frozen within 2 hours of cooking.

Shelf life: Leftover turkey stored in the refrigerator (between 35° to 40°) is safe to eat for 3-4 days; stored in the freezer (at 0° or below), for 3-4 months.

Reheating: Reheat turkey to 165°. Boil leftover turkey gravy before serving, and dispose of any leftover gravy after 2 days.

Sources:; National Turkey Federation; Food Safety and Inspection Service; Honeysuckle White