Stay Well Over the Holiday with Safe Food Handling

— Written By and last updated by Meghan Lassiter
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Display of traditional thanksgiving foods including pecan pie, ham, and stuffing

Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash


  • It’s Thanksgiving morning and your frozen turkey is still a little frozen…don’t panic. You can finish thawing it by placing it in a sink full of cold (not hot) water. Leave the package sealed and change the water every half hour. The cold water keeps the outside of the bird cold as the inside thaws. The reason for keeping it in the original wrapping or putting it in a new sealed bag is to keep any “juices” or bacteria from spreading.
  • Forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer and it is frozen solid. You don’t have to cancel Thanksgiving. A turkey can be safely cooked from the frozen state. A solidly frozen turkey will take at least 50% longer to cook than a thawed turkey. 
  • You don’t need to wash that turkey out before you stuff it. OK, I know this is something you’ve always done or your mother (and even Julia Child) told you to do. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is recommending that we don’t do this. Why? The water used to rinse or wash the turkey (don’t even think about soap) can splash around the sink, countertop, onto other foods, faucets or you, the cook. This is called cross-contamination. Rinsing or soaking the turkey doesn’t get rid of bacteria, only cooking will destroy any bacteria that might be present on the turkey.
hands under faucet with running water

Photo by Fran Jacquier on Unsplash

  • If you feel you MUST wash or rinse the turkey before cooking, do it carefully. Then be sure to clean the sink area and the countertops nearby afterward. Use soap and then wash it down the area with a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Flood the surface with the bleach solution and allow it to stand for several minutes. Rinse with clear water and air dry or pat dry with clean paper towels. Don’t forget to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, too.
  • cooked turkey

    Photo by Alison Marras on Unsplash

    Use a thermometer when cooking the turkey. It should reach at least 165 degrees. You may like it to be cooked a little higher. Some chefs recommend 180 degrees for quality and cutting ability. But, feel comfortable that it is safe at 165 degrees. Test the turkey in several spots. The breast will cook more quickly than the dark meat. Also double check the temperature of the stuffing inside, it should be at least 165 degrees, too.


  • Food should not be allowed to set at room temperature. If guests are late, don’t let the food sit out waiting for them.
  • If you’re doing a buffet, keep hot food above 135 degrees F and cold food below 41.


  • It is not necessary to allow hot foods to cool before putting them into the refrigerator. As soon as possible, go ahead and cut the turkey off the bone, put in storage bags that can lay flat in the refrigerator or shallow containers and get the food’s temperature down to below 41 degrees. If you store turkey below 41 degrees quickly then you will have a 7-day window to use these leftovers. If you have large quantities of food, break them down into small shallow bowls to allow for quick cooling once in the fridge.
  • Don’t get careless with those leftovers. Keep them in the coldest part of your refrigerator. If sending leftovers home with guests, pack them in a cooler with ice.
  • Reheat leftovers thoroughly. Merely warming leftover gravy, sauces, and soups is not hot enough to kill bacteria. These foods should be simmered or boiled until steamy hot throughout. Use a food thermometer to know for sure, it should reach 165 degrees F.
  •  If you have more leftovers than can be eaten in four to seven days, freeze them. Plain frozen cooked turkey will keep four months at 0 degrees F. If the turkey is covered with broth or gravy it will keep for six months. Stuffing and gravy will only be good for about a month. These foods will be safe for a longer time, but may become dry or lose flavor and quality. 

There is more information on holiday food safety from the NC State Extension Family and Consumer Science team available on the internet.

Wishing you a happy and food safe holiday!