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NEWS | Nov. 27, 2019

Holiday food preparation and safety tips for Thanksgiving

By Airman 1st Class Anthony Ortiz 66th Medical Squadron Public Health

Thanksgiving is this week and that often means a lot of cooking for holiday dinners. Improper storing and cooking of a turkey dinner can lead to the growth of harmful bacteria, and serving that dinner could cause food-borne illnesses.

Two primary causes of food-borne illnesses are eating foods that are not thoroughly cooked and improper refrigeration. Cooking foods to proper temperatures and proper refrigeration will help stop the growth of disease-causing bacteria that can lead to possible food poisoning.

Here are some helpful tips to keep your Thanksgiving dinner safe.

Tips when shopping

  • Make sure poultry is not expired when purchased.
  • Buy the poultry a day or two before it is cooked.
  • Bag the poultry by itself and keep it separate from fresh produce.

Tips for storing

  • Keep the poultry in the original packaging and when thawing in the refrigerator, place it in a pan to avoid juices from contaminating produce or other food.
  • Do not store poultry on the top shelf of the refrigerator.


  • When thawing in the refrigerator, place a frozen turkey in the refrigerator approximately 24 hours for every four to five pounds.
  • When thawing in cold water, submerge the turkey in cold water for approximately 30 minutes per pound and change the water every half-hour.
  • Never thaw poultry by leaving it on the counter as poultry left out for more than two hours can begin growing bacteria.


  • Wash hands with soap and hot water before handling food items.
  • Make sure work areas and food contact surfaces are clean and sanitized.
  • Use a cutting board for meats and a separate cutting board for fruits or vegetables.
  • Keep raw foods away from uncooked vegetables and other side dishes.
  • Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees and be sure the turkey is completely thawed before cooking. Cooking times vary based on size of the turkey; see table below.
  • Use a food thermometer to check that the internal temperature of the turkey reaches a minimum of 165 degrees.

Unstuffed turkey cooking times

  • 8 to 12 pounds 2-3/4 to 3 hours
  • 12 to 14 pounds 3 to 3-3/4 hours
  • 14 to 18 pounds 3-3/4 to 4-1/4 hours
  • 18 to 20 pounds 4-1/4 to 4-1/2 hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds 4-1/2 to 5 hours

Stuffed turkey cooking times

  • 8 to 12 pounds 3 to 3-1/2 hours
  • 12 to 14 pounds 3-1/2 to 4 hours
  • 14 to 18 pounds 4 to 4-1/4 hours
  • 18 to 20 pounds 4-1/4 to 4-3/4 hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds 4-3/4 to 5-1/4 hours

Storing leftovers

  • After dinner, store leftover food no later than two hours after serving. If planning to eat within three days, store in the refrigerator. For longer storage time, keep food in the freezer..
  • Store food in shallow containers.
  • Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees.

For information on cooking a turkey, contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or TTY: 1-800-674-6854. Additional information is also available at and