Thanksgiving food preparation and safety tips

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Shaun MclaughlinWaite
  • 4th Medical Group

Gobble, gobble, it’s turkey time. Thanksgiving is quickly approaching, which usually means a lot of last minute shopping and cooking for holiday meals.

However, few people stop to think about the possible illnesses that can occur.  Improper storing, cooking, and serving of a turkey dinner can lead to the growth of harmful bacteria, which can cause food-borne illnesses.

The two common causes of these illnesses are eating foods that are not thoroughly cooked and improper refrigeration. Cooking foods to proper temperatures and refrigerating leftovers in a timely manner will help stop the growth of disease-causing bacteria, which can lead to possible food poisoning.

Here are some helpful tips to keep your Thanksgiving dinner safe so you can eat more and hurt less.

Tips when shopping:

-          Buy the turkey one or two days before you cook it.

-          Bag the turkey and keep it separate from fresh produce. 

Tips for storing:

-          Store the turkey in the freezer if bought earlier in the month.

-          Store it in the refrigerator for 24 -48 hours prior to cooking.

-          Keep the turkey in original packaging and place in a pan to avoid juices from getting into other produce or food in the refrigerator. 


-          Defrost the turkey in the refrigerator at 40 degrees for 24 hours for every four or five pounds before cooking it.

-          Submerge the turkey in its original package in a pan of cold water enough to cover the turkey. Change the water every 30 minutes and allow 30 minutes of thawing for every pound.

-          Remove packaging and keep the turkey in a microwave safe pan. Thaw in the microwave oven and then place in the oven to cook. 


-          Wash hands with soap and hot water before handling.

-          Make sure work areas and food contact surfaces are clean and sanitized.

-          Use a cutting board for meats and a separate cutting board for fruits or vegetables.

-          Keep raw foods away from vegetables and side dishes that do not need to be cooked.

-          Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees and be sure the turkey is completely thawed before cooking.  Cooking times vary based on size of the turkey. (See chart below for specific instructions)

-          Use a food thermometer to ensure the internal temperature of the turkey reaches a minimum of 165 degrees.  The food danger zone is between 40 -140 degrees. Foods should remain below or above these temperatures. The turkey should stand for 20 minutes before removing all stuffing from the cavity and carving the meat.

Unstuffed turkey cooking times:

Four to eight pounds                           1-1/2 to 3-1/4 hours
Eight to 12 pounds                             2-3/4 to 3 hours
12 to 14 pounds                                  3 to 3-3/4 hours
14 to 18 pounds                                  3-3/4 to 4-1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds                                  4-1/4 to 4-1/2 hours
20 to 24 pounds                                  4-1/2 to 5 hours

Stuffed turkey cooking times:

Eight to 12 pounds                             3 to 3-1/2 hours
12 to 14 pounds                                  3-1/2 to 4 hours
14 to 18 pounds                                  4 to 4-1/4 hours
18 to 20 pounds                                  4-1/4 to 4-3/4 hours
20 to 24 pounds                                  4-3/4 to 5-1/4 hours

Storing leftovers:

-          Store leftovers within two hours after serving.

-          Use shallow storage containers.

-          Store leftovers in the refrigerator if planning on eating within three days. Keep food in freezer for longer storage time.

-          All leftovers should be reheated to 165 degrees.

For further information, contact Public Health at (919)722-1172. For information on other methods of cooking a turkey, call the U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or TTY: 1-800-674-6854.  The Hotline is open on Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. - 2 p. m., but closed on other Federal government holidays.

Additional information is available at and