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If you have questions that can't wait, call the U.S. Agriculture Department's meat and poultry hotline 1-800-535-4555.

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SafeFood Zone

Holiday Food Safety

Aaah the fall and winter holidays...You love them but they're work. Typically, you're juggling a turkey, a bunch of side dishes and a dozen relatives. To top it off, there are plenty of food safety pitfalls involved in such a big meal. Here are some dos and don'ts to help make for a happy holiday.

The Turkey

thaw a turkey on the kitchen counter. Frozen meat or poultry defrosting at room temperature for more than two hours isn't safe because the outer layer may be in the so-called "danger zone"—between 40-140F when bacteria multiply rapidly—while the inner portion may still be frozen solid.

thaw your bird in the refrigerator, or submerged in cold water that's changed every 30 minutes, or in the microwave. Cook it right after thawing.

make sure the oven is hot, at least 325F.

use a meat thermometer regardless of whether the turkey has a "pop-up" temperature indicator. It's done when the inner most part of the thigh reaches 180F. If you're just cooking a turkey breast, not a whole bird, the meat should hit 170F. Use the Cook It Safe Calculator to figure out how long it will take to get dinner on the table.

The Stuffing

cook your stuffing in a separate dish. Fill the bird with herbs and vegetables that will infuse the meat and discard them once it's done. Try our Simply Roasted Turkey recipe.

prep your stuffing ahead but be sure to keep wet and dry ingredients separate until just before cooking and keep all ingredients chilled. Stuffing should be moist not dry since heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment. Bill Wavrin's Currant and Walnut Stuffing is a holiday favorite.

cook your stuffing until it reaches 165F, if you decide to stuff your bird. Bacteria can survive in stuffing that doesn't hit that safe temperature. Always use a food thermometer. Even if the meat is done, it doesn't necessarily mean the stuffing is. And take the stuffing out of the bird as soon as it's cooked.

overstuff the bird. Use about 3/4 cup stuffing per pound of turkey. If you stuff too much in the cavity it takes a lot longer for heat to penetrate.

The Leftovers

be sure to clear the table. If perishable foods sit out for more than two hours, you need to throw them away. (If the room temperature tops 90F, the rule is one hour.) See our story on Food Safety for more tips.

refrigerate or freeze all your leftovers in shallow containers. Cooked turkey keeps for four days in the fridge and about four months in the freezer. Stuffing and gravy are good in the fridge for one to two days and about a month in the freezer. Most other side dishes will keep for three to four days in the refrigerator.

try to reheat the entire turkey. Instead, warm it in slices or by the leg or thigh. Make sure the meat and any other leftovers you may be reheating are a hot and steaming 165F before tucking in. Also, bring leftover gravy to a boil before using. If you're using a microwave, cover the food and rotate the dish frequently so it heats evenly.


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