University of Vermont

Cultivating Healthy Communities

Make Your Thanksgiving a Food-Safe Holiday

Burlington--When many Americans think of Thanksgiving, their thoughts turn to delicious food. Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie and many other dishes make Thanksgiving special but also can lead to foodborne illness if not prepared, served and stored with food safety in mind.

Londa Nwadike, the University of Vermont Extension food safety specialist, offers these tips for Thanksgiving food safety:


Be sure to buy your turkey from a reputable source. Frozen turkey must be thawed in the refrigerator or in cold water, not on the kitchen counter! In the refrigerator allow 24 hours of thawing time for every five pounds of turkey. In cold water allow about 30 minutes thawing time per pound of turkey. Change the water every 30 minutes to ensure that the outer layer of turkey will not get warm enough to support microbial growth.

Turkey and other meats should NOT be rinsed before cooking as that will only spread those germs around the sink that can cross-contaminate other foods. Any bacteria that might be rinsed off the surface would be easily killed by cooking in the oven.

The turkey should be cooked in a preheated oven set at 325 degrees F. When cooking an unstuffed bird, you should plan on a range of approximately three hours for an eight to 12-pound turkey to approximately five hours for a 20- to 24-pound turkey. For a stuffed bird, plan on an additional 15 to 30 minutes of cooking time.

To determine if the turkey is safely cooked, use a food thermometer to check that the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast has reached a minimum temperature of at least 165 degrees F.


Many people love to eat stuffing, but unfortunately, microorganisms love to grow in it as well. Cooking the stuffing outside of the bird is the safest method, but if you do choose to stuff your turkey, stuff it loosely just prior to cooking and make sure that the stuffing is moist. The stuffing also should reach at least 165 degrees F.


Pies and any other baked goods with fillings made of eggs and milk, including custard pies and cheesecake, must be baked to a safe internal temperature of at least 160 degrees F. Always refrigerate after baking or purchase.


Any dishes containing eggs, such as scalloped corn, should be cooked to reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees F.


Use separate cutting boards for chopping foods that will be eaten raw, not the same one that you use for meats. If produce is not pre-rinsed, rinse carefully and scrub off any visible soil with a produce brush.


Refrigerate the stuffing and turkey (with the meat removed from the carcass) separately in shallow containers within two hours of cooking. Leftover turkey will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days, gravy and stuffing only one or two days. Turkey can be frozen for up to one month with no loss of flavor or safety. Reheat leftovers until 165 degrees F or hot and steaming.

"If you are doing turkey take-out, know your vendor," Nwadike says. "Bring your purchase home immediately and refrigerate. When you reheat, make sure the temperature of the cooked meat reaches 165 degrees F."

For answers to food safety questions or help in preparing your Thanksgiving turkey, call the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline toll-free at (888) 674-6854. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Hotline services also are available for Spanish-speaking callers.