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Protecting Your Loved Ones from Food Illnesses This Holiday: 5 Dangerous Cooking Mistakes to Avoid

If you don’t handle your food carefully, your Thanksgiving dinner could make you and your loved ones sick—and not just from overeating.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from foodborne poisoning each year. Older adults are at an increased risk of more serious infections from food poisoning due to medications, age-related weakening of the immune system, and other underlying conditions.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we have some great information to keep your family safe from foodborne illness year-round, and especially during the holiday season. Practice these five food safety tips to keep your whole family safe from the dangers of foodborne illness this Thanksgiving.

  1. Do not wash your turkey and meats before cooking.
    Rinsing your poultry can actually spray bacteria up to three feet! Think about what you keep within three feet of your sink—knife block, fruit basket, spices, and maybe drying rack? And for all that mess, rinsing your turkey doesn’t actually eliminate very much bacteria.
  2. Do not stuff your turkey the night before cooking.
    The cavity of a turkey actually insulates your stuffing from the cold temperatures of your fridge and causes bacteria to multiply. To save time, but also stay safe, prepare your stuffing the night before, refrigerate it in a separate container, and add it to your turkey just before popping it in the oven.
  3. Thaw your turkey and meats in the refrigerator.
    Setting your turkey out on the counter to thaw is not safe. After just two hours, your turkey enters the danger zone of unsafe temperatures—40-140° F—and bacteria will begin to multiply, even if the center is still frozen. You can cook your turkey from the frozen state; it will just take 50% more time. Two other safe options are to either use cold water or a microwave to defrost. Learn the correct way to use one of these alternative options here.
  4. Use a food thermometer to ensure the internal temperature of the turkey is 165° F.
    Any temperature below 165° F means that E-coli bacteria could still be lurking, which can cause serious illness or even death when consumed. Ovens cook unevenly, so make sure to take temperature measurements from both sides of the bird. For even cooking, it’s recommended that you rotate and flip your turkey often. Don’t forget to check the stuffing separately to make sure it reaches 165° F.
  5. Refrigerate leftovers.
    The food you don’t eat should be in the fridge within two hours of cooking and use those leftovers within four days.

    • While sitting out, hot food, like green bean casserole, must be kept at a temperature of 140° F or greater, while chilled food, like cranberry sauce, must be kept at a temperature of 40° F or less. Any perishable food that sits out of its recommended temperature safe zone more than one hour should be tossed.
    • Cool hot food quickly to 40° F in order to avoid bacteria growth. Divide larger food, like your ham or pot of sweet potatoes into smaller containers to speed up the cooling process, or stick them directly in the fridge.
    • Store leftovers in airtight packaging or containers for up to four days in the fridge or 3-4 months in the freezer.
    • To eat leftovers, either thaw them via the fridge, cold water, or microwave, or reheat them frozen. When reheating, ensure your food reaches a temperature of 165° F or greater by using a food thermometer to test.

If you have additional food safety questions, please comment below, or call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern, Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern on Thanksgiving Day.

Food safety is a year-round concern. NCOA is working with senior centers across the country to host Food Safety 101, a special program taught by a USDA Food Safety Ambassador that empowers you to take steps to prevent foodborne illness in your home.

Encourage a senior center in your community to apply to host a class. Share this link with your center director, so they can sign up: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2016FoodSafety101.

Have a happy, food-safe Thanksgiving!

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About Adam Ghering

Adam Ghering is a Public Affairs Specialist with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

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