November 16, 2008


By Frances Largeman-Roth, RD
Thanksgiving is a little more than a week away, and if you're serving the big meal, you're probably focused on getting your turkey and all the trimmings ready. I don't mean to be a downer, but you probably want to direct some attention to an unwanted dinner guest: bacteria.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne diseases, such as salmonella, listeria, and toxoplasma, are responsible for 76 million illnesses; 325,000 hospitalizations; and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Of course, these don't all happen around the holidays, but since people are dealing with crowded counter space, defrosted turkeys, and multiple distractions, it's often a time of higher risk.

There's no need to add extra stress to your day worrying about bacteria. Here's your game plan for staying safe at every critical point.

Your opponent: Bacteria on your bird

Best defense: If you're using a frozen turkey, defrost it in the refrigerator on the lowest shelf, with a pan or large plate below it to catch any drips. Keep in mind that a 20-pound bird will take four days to defrost (1 day in the fridge for every 5 pounds). You don't want to have to put a half-frozen bird in your sink in an attempt to defrost it at the last minute—that's a recipe for food-safety misfortune.

Don't rinse your turkey (or other meat) before cooking it. Why? All you'll do is spread more bacteria around your sink. If you cook your food to a proper temperature (more on that soon), you'll be fine.

Your opponent: Cross-contamination

Best defense: All you need to do is drip some turkey juices on your countertop or cutting board, then prep your raw vegetables on those surfaces, and bam, you've spread salmonella. Avoid mishaps by using two cutting boards: one for vegetables and fruit, and a separate one for meat. I prefer cutting boards that can be put directly in the dishwasher, like those made of plastic and ceramic. Bacteria on the surface of food can be transferred to knives and surfaces, so be sure to rinse fruits and vegetables under running water before slicing and dicing.

Your opponent: Bacteria on your hands

Best defense: Get those paws soapy, and rinse under running water before and after each time you handle food, especially the bird. Scrub for 20 seconds, rinse, and then either dry your hands on a paper towel or a dry dish towel that you just pulled out that morning. Make sure to wash dish towels, aprons, and such on the hot cycle when it's laundry time. (I like to separate super gross dish towels in a plastic bag until I can wash them.)

Your opponent: Spills on the counter

Best defense: Clean up all meat and gravy drips immediately with a paper towel (a sponge is just going to spread bacteria around) and either hot, soapy water, or a kitchen spray with chlorine in it.

The main event

Your opponent: Undercooked meat

Best defense: Use an instant-read (I like digital ones) thermometer to take the turkey's temperature in the thickest part of the thigh. Avoid hitting the bone. The goal is to reach 165°. If you are 5° off, don't sweat it. The meat temperature will continue to rise once you remove it from the oven. If you're not close to hitting the mark, wash your thermometer probe with hot water and soap, and try again in another 30 minutes.

When the bird is out, let it rest for about 30 minutes before carving. This lets the juices settle, which means they'll be in every tasty bite instead of running all over your cutting board.

Your opponent: Food sitting out too long

Best defense: It's tough to be a slave to the clock when your guests are stuffing their faces and enjoying themselves, but keep in mind how long the food has been sitting out. Bacteria starts to multiply when food has been out at 40° to 140° for more than two hours. So, if you removed the turkey from the oven at 2 p.m., you have till 4 p.m. to put it away. If you don't have time to carve up the remaining meat, cover it in foil and stick it in the fridge. The same is true for the rest of the hot food. Before the meal starts, designate someone to help you with food removal. At the end of the day, it's smart to have reinforcement.

The recovery
Your opponent: Impatient, hungry houseguests

Your defense: After cleaning up the kitchen and putting away all the food last night, your houseguests have worked up an appetite for leftovers. Before you let them raid the fridge, keep these points in mind.

  • Casseroles and any other leftovers should be heated up to 165°. Since microwave ovens can heat unevenly, your best bet is to cover the food with foil and stick it in the oven at about 325°.

  • Bring soups and gravy to a boil before re-serving.

  • Your leftovers (turkey, potatoes, pies) will keep safely in the fridge for three days after Thanksgiving. Soup and gravy are only good for two days.

As far as your mental recovery goes, I suggest a manicure or a nice massage. Or perhaps you should treat yourself to a hassle-free dinner out. Happy Thanksgiving!

More questions? Try these tips for a safe and healthy holiday.

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