Holiday Food Safety Quick Tips

When hosting friends and family—particularly our older loved ones, people with weakened immune systems, infants, and pregnant women—safe food handling should be top of mind. When mishandled, protein-rich holiday centerpieces, like the Thanksgiving turkey, can harbor severe amounts of illness-causing microorganisms. Here’s a plan to facilitate a safer and enjoyable holiday meal.

Fresh meat, poultry, and fish

Before you bring home a fresh turkey, ham, goose, roast, or fish, make space on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator where a leak-proof plate or platter can be used to prevent juices from dripping onto other items in the fridge.

Make the meat, poultry, or fish the last item in you pick up at the grocery store to keep it cold for as long as possible. Place it in a plastic bag on the bottom rack of your grocery cart, away from other foods. Plan to make the grocery store your last stop so the food doesn’t need to sit in your car where it might start to warm-up. If you have more shopping to accomplish, ice packs and a cooler can maintain the cold chain for a short time.

Store the food in its designated refrigerator space right away when you get home.

Frozen meat, poultry, and fish

Since freezing inactivates microbes present in food, properly stored frozen meat, poultry, and fish can be a safer choice than fresh for people at higher risk for foodborne illness. However, once thawed, these microbes can become active and multiply, growing at the same rate as microorganisms on fresh food.

Have a defrosting plan in place well before your meal needs to be ready. Never defrost in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher, plastic garbage bag, out on the kitchen counter, or outdoors since these methods can make your food unsafe to eat. Safe defrosting options include:

  • Refrigerator: Allow 24-hours of defrosting time per five pounds of meat. For example, to defrost a twenty-pound bird for Thanksgiving, start the previous Sunday.
  • Cold water: Cuts of meat, fish, or poultry in leak-proof packaging can be defrosted in a vat of cold, running water or a container of still water that’s changed every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes of defrosting per pound.
  • Microwave: Although appropriate for smaller cuts, most microwaves are not large enough to thaw large roasts, hams, and turkeys. When microwave-defrosting, plan to cook your food immediately since some parts may have begun cooking.

Preparation and cooking

In general, purchase fresh meat, poultry, and fish 1-2 days before you plan on preparing it. When it’s time to cook, start with a clean cooking space. Remove unnecessary items from countertops (in case of splashing) and, for good measure, rewash any cookware that hasn’t been used since your previous gathering (i.e., the turkey baster).

Anything that encounters raw meat or its juices during preparation needs sanitizing with hot soapy water. Sponges used to clean cooking equipment can be sanitized in boiling water, in the microwave, or the dishwasher.

Even turkeys and meat with pop-up thermometers need to be checked with a conventional meat thermometer, ideally one that provides an instant, digital reading. Take this reading in at the thickest portion, i.e., the thigh of a turkey. Reaching the internal target temperatures below ensures that specific sickness causing microorganisms associated with food get killed off.

  • Whole meats (not ground): 145 F
  • Poultry (whole, parts, and ground): 165 F
  • Fish and shellfish: 145 F
  • Ground meat: 160 F
  • Fully cooked USDA-inspected ham (for reheating): 140 F. Reheat all others to 165 F
  • Leftovers: 165 F


Food will stay safe at room temperature up to four hours but get it to the refrigerator after two hours if you want to save it for leftovers.

Are you serving buffet style? Don’t set all the food out at once. Keep second and third helpings out of the temperature danger zone, where bacteria multiply fastest, by storing it under 40 F in the refrigerator or above 140 F in the oven. Bring out the food on clean platters rather than adding to existing ones.


Since harmful bacteria multiply rapidly at room temperature, cooked food should be tossed if it’s been left out longer than two hours. Reheating may kill the bacteria present on these foods, but heat cannot destroy the toxins produced by organisms like Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringens.

Chill leftovers as quickly as possible. Break large cuts of meat into smaller pieces and store liquids in shallow containers, no deeper than 2 inches.

Use refrigerated leftovers within four days (two days for stuffing and gravy), reheating to an internal temperature of 165 F. Bring your soups, sauces, and gravies to a boil.


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