Wash your hands but not the turkey this Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving dinner is the largest meal most people cook each year. With extra food preparation, be sure to keep food safety in mind for your celebration!

Estimates are that more than 46 million turkeys are purchased, cooked, carved and eaten during the Thanksgiving meal! Add to this a wide array of side dishes and generally more than one cook in the kitchen, and it is a miracle that everything is done at the same time as the family gathers around the table.

Given all the moving parts to a Thanksgiving meal, or any other big holiday meal, sometimes food safety takes the back burner as people frantically try to prepare the food. To be sure you and your loved ones enjoy a delicious holiday meal, keep these four key food safety tips in mind as you start to plan and prepare for that family gathering.


Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands, but do not wash the turkey! We all know handwashing with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds, helps remove soils and germs from our hands preventing their spread to foods and work surfaces. When handling food, especially raw meat like turkey, the more frequently you wash your hands the better. Washing your turkey however, can easily spread bacteria all over the kitchen and contaminate other surfaces that may come in contact with food. Studies have shown that the splashing that occurs from washing meat and poultry can spread bacteria up to three feet from the sink, contaminating countertops, towels and other foods. Cooking to the correct temperature destroys bacteria, not washing, so save time and skip this step.

Now if you have brined a turkey, you will need to rinse it. To do this safely, remove all foods and other objects from the sink area and layer with paper towels before using a slow stream of water to avoid splashing. When done, thoroughly clean and sanitize the sink and surrounding area.


Plan ahead and make space! With the purchase of extra food, refrigerator space becomes tight, especially when it is time to thaw the turkey or bring home the fresh bird. The best way to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. You need to allow about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds, which means most people will be thawing the turkey in the refrigerator for anywhere from three to five or more days! To prevent cross-contamination be sure the turkey is in a container so juices don’t drip onto other foods.


Use a food thermometer to check the final internal temperature of the turkey! The only sure way to know that your bird is done is to check the temperature using a food thermometer. The final temperature should be at least 165 degrees F in these three locations: innermost part of the thigh, innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. If it is not at this temperature in all locations, keep cooking. Stuffing also needs to reach a temperature of 165 degrees F.


Put leftovers away within two hours! One of the best parts of Thanksgiving dinner may be sitting around the table talking after the meal. After two hours at room temperature, though, bacteria in food can multiply rapidly and cause illness. Once done eating, be sure to refrigerate leftovers quickly; do not let them sit on the countertop to cool. You can cut turkey into smaller pieces, put other leftovers into smaller containers, or if you have a lot of gravy, fill your sink with ice and place the container of gravy in the sink to further cool the gravy. Use leftovers in about four days. If you know you cannot use them in that time then freeze them for later meals.

Following these easy food safety tips will assure you have a happy and food-safe Thanksgiving!

For more information and recipes for your holiday meal and/or leftovers, visit The Story of Your Dinner at the Partnership for Food Safety Education (www.fightbac.org) or contact your local Extension office. On Thanksgiving Day the USDA toll free hotline will be taking calls from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. with live food-safety experts to handle your questions. Call them at 1-888-674-6854. The regular hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.


Laurie Welch is a nutrition and family issues educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension, 570-726-0022.