No one wants to think about food poisoning — stomach cramps, nausea and more — the day before a big holiday feast, but if you’re the cook, you need to be mindful. From cooking your turkey to storing and reheating leftovers, Thanksgiving offers many chances to make simple meal prep mistakes that can be costly.
The Preparation Phase: Lots of Hand-Washing
Unfortunately, you can’t give raw meat and poultry (turkey and chicken) a visual inspection to see if it contains harmful bacteria. Your best bet is to handle meat as if it is contaminated (better safe than sorry). This means you should wash your hands — before and after handling the raw stuff, while preparing the food and especially after going to the bathroom (I know it’s gross, but folks forget to wash their hands!). Just dunking your hands under the hot water isn’t enough. Follow these steps to do it properly.
Risks for Cross-Contamination
Second to improper hand-washing on the problem list is cross-contamination. Have you ever sliced up raw chicken, lightly rinsed or wiped your knife and then used it on raw veggies (and probably the same cutting board, too)? That’s cross contamination.
Another form of cross-contamination happens when you wash your turkey before cooking it. Sure, your mother may have taught you that this how you “wash away” the germs, but according to the newest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, washing raw meat can actually increase the chances of spreading bacteria. If you’re trying to “clean” your meat, your best bet to get rid of bacteria is to cook it properly. Go ahead and skip that turkey bath.
Watch the Clock
It’s all in the timing. Be mindful of how long your foods stay out at room temperature. Since bacteria thrive at room temperature, it’s important to prep what you need and either cook it immediately or refrigerate it for later use. Anything that remains out for more than two hours, especially raw meats, can make you and your guests ill. Take note: No defrosting on the counter!
The Cooking Phase: Reaching Proper Temperatures
We already covered the debate on whether to stuff or not stuff your turkey. In order to keep all your foods safe, cooking to the correct internal temperature is a must and that means you need a thermometer. If you don’t have one, buy one now! Here’s our rundown on some common types, so you can find the one for your needs.
When checking the turkey, you want to measure the temperature of the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast; it should read 165 degrees Fahrenheit. For other foods, place the thermometer in the thickest part and follow this USDA chart on specific cooking temperatures for various foods.
And don’t forget about those pre-cooked sides you made ahead of time. They also need to be reheated to the correct temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit before being served — this kills off any bacteria that might have gotten on them during preparation.
The Cooling Phase: Packing Things Up
According to the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), improper cooling causes more than half of food-borne illnesses. Once food is cooked, don’t let it sit out at room temperature for more than two hours. This is for heated foods and cold foods (i.e. fruit salad).
When you’re ready to cool your foods down and store them for leftovers, the technique depends on the type of food:
- Thanksgiving turkey: Cut the remaining meat into small pieces and lay them flat in a shallow container.
- Stuffing and other sides: If there’s a lot left, divide it into smaller containers so you can reheat a batch up at a time. Fill the containers so the food is no more two inches deep.
- Soup and gravy: Pour soup into smaller containers to allow for easier, faster cooling.
The Reheating Phase: Loving Your Leftovers
If mashed potatoes or piles of turkey are sitting in your fridge after three or four days, toss them. That means, you should have frozen the turkey bones and eaten up the leftover grub by next Monday. When you do go to relive Turkey Day this weekend, reheat the food to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If the goodies sat out for more than two hours while you enjoyed your meal, don’t risk it — pitch them in the garbage to be safe.