A grill-roasted brined turkey is presented on a table in Concord, N.H. Turkey is the center of most Thanksgiving meals, but it’s important to handle raw poultry properly to avoid spreading bacteria that can send your guests home with an unwanted side of food poisoning. Credit: Larry Crowe / AP

With just two days left until Thanksgiving, those celebrating the holiday likely have their menu set. Now it’s important to make sure all that food is prepared, served and stored safely.

Unsafe preparation and handling of food can lead to serious foodborne illness, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Turkey — the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving meals — and a number of popular side dishes can harbor pathogens and dangerous bacteria if not cooked or stored properly.

All it takes is a bit of extra attention to make sure you and your guests enjoy a safe holiday feast, said Beth Calder, food science specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and the School of Food and Agriculture.  

That attention begins with properly thawing out your turkey if it’s been frozen.

“It should be thawed out in the refrigerator,” Calder said. “If you set it out on the counter to thaw, the surface [of the turkey] will thaw faster than the inside and that will allow bacteria to grow before it has a chance to thaw entirely.”

Calder said the 15-pound turkey she plans to roast and serve is already in the refrigerator thawing, as every 5 pounds of turkey requires 24 hours of thawing time.

You can also thaw a frozen turkey in its original wrapper by submerging it in cold water and changing the water every 30 minutes, according to the USDA guidelines. It will take 30 minutes per pound of bird to thaw.

Regardless of the thawing method used, Calder said it is important to keep the area sanitized as any liquid from the turkey — often called thaw drip — can contain harmful bacteria.

“It’s best to wash the area down with a food-grade detergent and maybe a dilute bleach solution before working the bird,” she said. “Keep your hands clean by washing in warm soapy water and any surface the raw turkey comes in contact with should be thoroughly cleaned after you are done.”

While the Thanksgiving meal host will typically be in charge of preparing the turkey, guests will often bring side dishes or desserts. It’s important to make sure those items are transported safely, Calder said.

“If it’s just a short distance like a five or 10 minute drive, your hot dishes will be fine,” she said. “But if it’s a longer trip it’s a good idea to wait and cook your side dish or pie along with the other items at your destination.”

The exceptions are fruit pies, rolls or breads, which can be baked ahead of time and safely transported. Anything like dairy-based cream pies or cheesecakes need to be stored at under 40 degrees until served.

No matter how cold it is this Thanksgiving, Calder said do not rely on putting items that need refrigeration in the trunk of your car thinking they will stay cold enough there.

“Go the extra mile and put those dishes in a cooler with frozen gel packs,” she said. “You don’t know how cool your trunk will actually be and it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Hosts of the Thanksgiving meal can help keep food safe until serving by using crockpots, chafing dishes and beds of ice to hold dishes at the appropriate temperatures.

And while you may want to relax after the meal, that is not a good idea in terms of leftovers.

“This is not the most popular response, but the leftovers should be taken care of right off,” she said. “You want to break down the turkey and store it and any other warm leftovers in shallow dishes so they cool down more quickly.”

Putting too much warm or hot food into a container runs the danger of it staying warm long enough for illness-causing bacteria to breed.

Those bacteria can cause illnesses including salmonella and food poisoning. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates nearly one million people are sickened annually in the U.S. with these food borne illnesses, with symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, fever and loss of appetite.

Calder recommends having a good supply of sealable containers, ziplock bags or tinfoil on hand to hold the leftovers. Everything should be packaged, wrapped and placed in the refrigerator within two hours after the meal is finished, she said.

If you are sending leftovers home with guests, it should be placed on top of ice or frozen gel packs in coolers.

The shelf life for leftovers stored in the refrigerator is three to four days, according to Calder. That means they should all be eaten or frozen for later use by the Monday after Thanksgiving at the latest.

To reheat the leftover turkey, Calder said it should be done long enough so the meat’s internal temperature reaches 165 degrees on a food thermometer. If heating it in a microwave, she said to make sure the meat rotates so it heats evenly and there are no cold spots.

“The bacteria of concern that cause food borne illnesses can grow fast,” Calder said. “And they like [meat or poultry] protein and warmth where they can grow rapidly in a very short period of time.”

Avatar photo

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.