Cooking A Turkey Is A Family Affair

How To Avoid Food Contamination This Holiday Season

As families and friends gather to celebrate the holidays, cooks head to the kitchen to prepare bountiful meals. One item not on the grocery list, but that should be in the kitchen, is food safety. By following four basic food safety steps, the Thanksgiving or Christmas meal can be delicious and safe. In fact, it's so simple to follow safe food handling practices that children can help.

There are 4 tips are easy to follow to avoid food contamination:

  1. Clean
  2. Separate
  3. Cook
  4. Chill

Plan Ahead

Before meal preparation begins, you must shop for a turkey. If you shop ahead, then you'll probably want to purchase a frozen turkey. If you're purchasing a turkey within 1-2 days of cooking it, then you can safely purchase a fresh turkey.

Frozen turkeys should be thawed prior to cooking. Turkeys, along with all raw and frozen meat and poultry products, must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. Any harmful bacteria that may have been present prior to freezing can begin to grow again unless proper thawing methods are used.

There are three safe ways to thaw a turkey or other food:

  1. In the refrigerator at 40 ºF or less;
  2. In cold water; and
  3. In the microwave.

All About Thawing

  • When thawing in the refrigerator, allow 24 hours of thawing time for every five pounds of turkey. 
  • When thawing in cold water, allow 30 minutes per pound and change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. 
  • When thawing in the microwave, follow the manufacturer's instructions. 

Plan to cook the turkey immediately after thawing because some areas of the turkey may become warm and begin to cook during microwave thawing.

Wash, Wash, Wash Those Hands!

Germs are spread easily from hand contact to others and on surfaces. Make sure that anyone helping in the meal preparation washes their hands often (especially after handling raw meat) with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds.

After handwashing, children can help by gathering cooking pans and utensils, and bringing food from the refrigerator to the counter. At this time, be sure that utensils, plates, work surfaces, etc., have been thoroughly cleaned.

Separate Raw Meats

To avoid cross-contamination, make sure that you separate the raw meat and poultry foods from other foods that will not be cooked, e.g. salads, breads and raw vegetables.

While children may want to help prepare a vegetable salad or butter the rolls, be sure those foods are kept away from the raw turkey. Raw meat and poultry products may contain harmful bacteria, so it is important that the juices from raw meat and poultry products do not come into contact with food that will be consumed without cooking. Also, never place cooked food on an unwashed plate that previously held raw meat or poultry.

Cooking The Turkey

The only way to assure that your turkey has reached a high enough temperature to destroy harmful bacteria is to use a food thermometer. Children can assist in using the meat thermometer too, however, be sure to get the turkey to a safe position on the stovetop or in the oven so that nobody is burned from the hot cooking pan or juices. Insert the food thermometer into the turkey and children can read the temperature.

Follow these temperatures to ensure a safe turkey:

  • Whole turkey should reach 180 ºF between the breast and the innermost part of the thigh;
  • Turkey breast should reach 170 ºF in the thickest part of the breast;
  • Turkey thighs and wings should reach 180 ºF in the thickest part of the meat; and
  • Stuffing, cooked alone or in the bird, should reach 165 ºF in its center.

If you choose to stuff a turkey, then you must use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey and the stuffing. The temperature of the turkey must reach 180 ºF in the innermost part of the thigh and the center of the stuffing must reach 165 ºF. If the stuffing has not reached 165 ºF, then continue cooking the turkey until it does.

Chill To Avoid Food Contamination

A tradition with a lot of families is to leave the turkey and other food items out for "grazing" later in the day, however, food-borne bacteria can grow while food sits unrefrigerated. The best way to avoid food poisoning is to refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared food, and leftovers within two hours.

For additional information, please visit the following areas:

Portions of the above information has been provided with the kind permission of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA, (

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Last Editorial Review: 11/22/2002