Holiday Food Safety Tips

Part of the excitement of the holidays are the traditional foods of the season. However, some of these foods can pose hazards that can ruin more than just a holiday meal—they can cause serious illness and even death. Here are some tips on how to enjoy these foods safely.


Have a plan: Preparing a turkey takes a bit of planning, especially during the hectic holiday season. Before buying your turkey, make room in your refrigerator and find a plate or platter big enough to put the uncooked turkey on so any leaking juices won’t contaminate other foods in the refrigerator. At the store, buy the turkey last, put it in a separate plastic bag to avoid contaminating other foods, and refrigerate it immediately when you get home. If serving your turkey to the elderly, children, or those with weakened immune systems, purchase a frozen turkey to reduce the chances that your turkey will carry potentially harmful bacteria. If you are combining food shopping with other holiday shopping, make the grocery store the last stop so food will not be left in the car while you are searching for the perfect gifts.

Defrosting: When using a frozen turkey, the safest way to defrost it is in the refrigerator, but keep in mind you need to allow 24 hours of defrosting for every 5 pounds of turkey. For Thanksgiving, that means a 20 pound frozen turkey needs to start defrosting on Sunday. Don’t defrost the turkey on the counter. Turkeys wrapped in leak-proof plastic can be defrosted in cold water, but the water should be changed every 30 minutes and allow 30 minutes of defrosting per pound of turkey. A microwave is too small for most turkeys, but if using one, cook the turkey as soon as it is thawed (but after removing any plastic wrapping). Buy your fresh turkey only one to two days before you plan to cook it. Don’t forget to remove the neck and giblets from the turkey.

Start out clean: Before preparing the turkey, clear and thoroughly clean the counter, as well as the cooking equipment that you might not have used since preparing last year’s turkey. Clean everything, including sponges and hands, that comes in contact with the raw turkey or its juice immediately with hot, soapy water. Sanitize sponges by running them through your dishwasher or boiling them on the stove.

Cooking: When cooking a turkey, use a meat thermometer. Even if the turkey has a “pop-up” thermometer, it’s a good idea to check the temperature with a conventional meat thermometer, such as an oven-safe, dial instant-read, or digital thermometer. If you don’t have one, pick one up at the grocery store as you’re searching for the holiday items. Set the oven no lower than 325°F and cook the turkey to 165°F, taking the reading in the thick part of the thigh. Here are approximate cooking times for turkey, but use a meat thermometer to be certain that your turkey is done:

Turkey Temperatures

Serving the buffet: Your efforts have paid off. The turkey is beautiful and your guests are duly impressed. To keep the food safe, make sure it isn’t left out for longer than two hours. If you’re having a buffet, don’t serve all the food at once. Keep the second and third servings either above 140°F in the oven or below 40°F in the refrigerator. Whenever possible, put additional food out on clean platters instead of adding it to the platters already on the table.

Take-out food: More and more busy people are opting for pre-cooked holiday meals. Be sure to keep the turkey and other hot foods at 140°F or above if you will be eating them within two hours of picking them up. Other cold foods such as salads should be kept in the refrigerator below 40°F until you are ready to eat them. If you will be eating dinner more than two hours later, you should dismantle your feast, refrigerate, and reheat it in the same manner as with leftovers.

Safety for Sides

Stuffing: For many people stuffing is the best part of Thanksgiving. But it is warm and moist — a perfect environment for bacteria to grow. Stuffing can be contaminated by bacteria from eggs and shellfish in the stuffing or the turkey itself. If preparing the stuffing ahead of time, wet and dry ingredients should be refrigerated separately and mixed just before cooking. The safest way to cook stuffing is on the stove or in the oven, but separate from the turkey. If cooking the stuffing inside the bird, loosely stuff the turkey just before you stick it in the oven with 3/4 cup stuffing per pound of turkey. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches 165°F. A “pop-up” thermometer that comes with a turkey won’t tell you the temperature of the stuffing. Avoid pre-stuffed fresh turkeys.

Cider: Unpasteurized apple cider is another holiday food that may contain harmful bacteria. Check the label to see if the cider is unpasteurized. If serving cider to the elderly or young or those with weakened immune systems, buy pasteurized apple cider. If you want to buy unpasteurized cider or are unsure if the cider is pasteurized, mull the cider by heating it to 160°F or boiling it if you don’t have a thermometer. Serve it warm or cold.

Eggnog: If homemade, this creamy treat could be contaminated with bacteria sometimes found in raw eggs. To be sure the eggnog is safe, use pasteurized egg products or buy ready-made eggnog, which is pasteurized. If you want to make eggnog with whole eggs safely, gradually heat the egg-milk mixture to 160°F or until it coats a metal spoon.


Time and temperature: Although you might not feel like doing much after a big meal, it is very important that you refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of cooking the food. Bacteria multiply fastest at warm temperatures in the range between 40°F and 140°F. Therefore, leaving cooked food at room temperature is an invitation for bacteria like Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus to grow in your food. If cooked food has been left out for more than two hours, throw it away. Reheating will not destroy the toxin produced by Staphylococcus aureus nor the spores of Clostridium perfringens.

Dismantling the feast: Food should be chilled as quickly as possible in the refrigerator. Divide the turkey into smaller pieces and store the turkey separately from the stuffing and gravy. To drop the temperature fast, store leftovers at a shallow depth — about 2 inches. Shallow containers allow food to cool more evenly and quickly in the refrigerator or freezer. This is also useful for later eating in less than feast-sized portions.

Using leftovers later: Use leftovers within 4 days, except stuffing and gravy which should be used within 2 days. If that is an impossible feat, freeze the leftovers in shallow containers. If reheating leftovers, heat them to 165°F and boil soups, sauces, and gravies.

Donate to CSPI

I want to be part of the fight for safer, more nutritious food by contributing to CSPI.

Donate to CSPI Now



Subscribe Now

Subscribe Now »

Subscribe Today and Save!

In Recent Issues

Cover Story: 1 in 8: What You May Not Know About Breast Cancer

Special Feature: Soy Oh Soy: Is It Really Bad For You?

Brand-Name Rating: Pasta Sauce

Subscribe Now

Request permission to reuse content

The use of information from this site for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited without written permission from CSPI.

BBB Guidestar Great Nonprofits

CSPI meets the stringent financial accountability and management standards of the Council of Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, is a "valued partner" with Guidestar, and is rated a "high-impact" nonprofit by Philanthropedia. These independent ratings are your guarantee that every dollar you contribute to CSPI will be used to its maximum effect! You can access reports on CSPI at,, and Thank you