Mind Your Turkey Temperature this Thanksgiving: 4 ways to make sure your turkey day is safe

Healthy Ozarks
4 min readNov 21, 2022

Liz Mack is a Public Health Investigator and has been with the Health Department for over 8 years and has been practicing Environmental Health for 24 years. Her favorite Thanksgiving dishes are sweet potato pie and ham.

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and we all know what that means — food, and lots of it. Whether you’re the one hosting or you’re just bringing a dish, cooking food safely and properly is going to keep everyone happy and staying full.

As someone who deals with food safety all day long, I can assure you that not cooking your food properly can make you and your loved ones sick. Foodborne illnesses like food poisoning can make you sick for days, which means a waste of a holiday and a waste of food.

The good news is I am here to help and hopefully provide you with some new tips about food safety that you might not know.

Before that, here are a few steps to follow before preparing your food:

Check to make sure your refrigerator is at 41°F or below before you begin buying your Thanksgiving ingredients and storing them. This is an important step especially if you are thawing your turkey in the refrigerator because the thawing process can take up to 6 days depending on how many pounds your turkey is.

For a whole turkey, the thawing times are:

  • 4 to 12 pounds — 1 to 3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds — 3 to 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds — 4 to 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds — 5 to 6 days

A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days before cooking.

After that, it’s time to get yourself and your space ready for some Thanksgiving cooking with these tips:

  1. Wash your hands before and after prepping food.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s important. Many of us return with bags of groceries in our hands or prepare different dishes at the same time. Remembering to wash your hands before preparing food and before and after handling raw poultry or meat is very important this season and for every meal you make.

  1. Separate your raw meat from ready-to-eat-foods.

It’s no crime to use ready-to-eat ingredients when making Thanksgiving. Many of us do it. However, keep these ready-to-eat foods away from the raw foods and don’t reuse marinade from raw foods unless you boil it first. Just like flu germs can spread from person to person and make us sick, germs can spread between different foods.

  1. Temperature is important.

For Thanksgiving, the name of the game is temperature! There’s a lot here to remember, so I’ll break it down a bit:

When Cooking: Your turkey or duck should be cooked to 165°F or greater for more than 15 seconds; be sure and check the thickest part of the bird, like the breast, without letting the probe touch the bone to make sure it is done. To check the temperature, we recommend using a thin probe thermometer — make sure to clean it before and after every use.

After Cooking: Once it’s all cooked, your potentially hazardous foods or what we refer to as “PHFs” like turkey, meat, cooked vegetables, and casseroles, need to be hot held 135°F or above and checked every two hours. If the temperature drops below 135°F, you should quickly reheat to165°F within two hours by oven, microwave, or stove top. Remember, do not use a crock pot to reheat. If you’re reheating leftovers, be sure and get it back up to 165°F before serving.

Cooling after Cooking: Yes, you can get sick from incorrectly cooling PHFs. If your food cools too slowly it can grow bacteria quickly. Your PHFs need to cool from 135°F to 70°F within two hours, then from 70°F to 41°F or less within another four hours. This can be done by pulling meat and putting it on a cake or sheet pan, placing in the freezer uncovered or on an ice bath.

And, please, do not leave PHFs sitting out at room temperature. If you do, go ahead, and toss it after four hours. The bacteria growing on it at that point would be tough to stomach and make you or your loved ones sick.

  1. After 7 days, throw it out.

Alright, so Thanksgiving is over. While Thanksgiving leftovers might be better than the day-of meal, keeping PHFs around for more than seven days puts you at a risk of foodborne illness. When trying to figure out if it’s been seven days, count the day you made the food and then add six.

Thanksgiving should be a time where you’re worrying about who is going to win the Monopoly game against all your cousins or if grandma remembered the pumpkin pie this time. You shouldn’t have to worry about if you’re going to end up with food poisoning because you can’t remember what temperature to cook your turkey to. I hope this helped you feel a bit more comfortable around the kitchen this holiday season.

If you can’t remember all of these steps, try printing this food safety flyer out and sticking it on the fridge for guidance. You’ll be glad you did.

Most of all, enjoy the food (safely) this Thanksgiving.