Don't Be a Turkey! Handle Your Thanksgiving Dinner Properly

November 21, 2006 - Posted at 5:12 p.m. CST JONESBORO, AR -- While overindulging can cause an upset stomach, so can eating food that was improperly handled.

More than 76 million Americans get sick every year from food poisoning and the mishandling of food at home contributes largely to this number. With the Thanksgiving holiday just around the corner, thousands in Region 8 will be sitting down to dinner, but some will go home with more than just leftovers.

Planning your holiday meal takes effort and keeping your guests healthy and happy starts in the grocery story.

"I say separate in the grocery store first.  Keep your raw meats on part, the lower part of the buggy or the cart, and then keep your fresh produce up at the top.  So you start thinking about it before you even purchase your food," said Craighead County Extension Agent Nelvia Agnew.

Count on about a pound of turkey per guest for your Thanksgiving dinner and whether you're going to be buying a frozen turkey or a fresh turkey, you'll want to keep it properly stored before your big day.

Thawing your turkey takes time.  Plan for one day for every five pounds of weight if thawing in the refrigerator.  You can thaw your turkey in cold water...changing the water every 30 minutes.  Microwave thawing will also defrost your bird...but be ready to cook immediately.

"You do want to make sure you cook it to an internal temperature of 165°.  We do recommend that you do your stuffing separately in another pan, that is so you can make sure it also heats thoroughly," said Agnew.

A pumpkin pie is a form of custard and like custard, must be kept in the refrigerator. Foods which contain eggs, milk, and high moisture content, like custard and pumpkin pie, must be kept refrigerated. Bacteria love to grow in these types of foods. When preparing the meal, make sure not to cross contaminate.

"We encourage you to please do raw meats on one cutting board and do your produce on another, don't use the same cutting board for both," said Agnew.

For those traveling to grandma's house on Thanksgiving, consider how long the trip is before you pack your bags.  When traveling with food or assigning foods to guests to bring, consider the type of food and the distance traveled. Cold foods should not be off refrigeration over two hours, including the time they are at room temperature during serving. Hot foods must be kept hot.

"If you are going to be traveling more than 30 minutes then you might want to contact your host and see if you can bring non-perishable items.  If there is something perishable that you want to take then you want to ice it down," said Agnew.

Folks traveling a long distance might bring non-perishables such as rolls, breads and cookies. Those traveling an hour or less can safely bring perishable foods. Wrap hot foods in foil and towels to keep warm. Place cold foods in a cooler with ice or gel packs but plan to serve foods shortly after guests have arrived.  It's important to keep raw foods separate when traveling.

Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly after eating. If food is left at room temperature for over two hours, bacteria can grow to harmful levels and the food may no longer be safe. Put them in shallow dishes so they cool faster. For thicker foods -- such as stews, hot puddings, and layers of meat slices -- limit depth of food to two inches. Follow the same cooling guidelines for foods that are cooked ahead to be reheated at a later time.

For greatest safety, eat leftovers in a day or two and don't keep any longer than three days. Frozen foods will keep longer and turkeys can be frozen indefinatly. Loosely cover leftovers to allow heat to escape and to protect from accidental contamination during cooling. Stir food occasionally to help it cool; use a clean spoon each time. Cover tightly when cooled. When serving leftovers, bring sauces, soups and gravies to a boil. Heat other leftovers thoroughly to 165º or until steamy hot throughout.

If you have any questions on food safety, the answer is just a phone call away.  You can call the USDA Meat & Poultry hotline toll-free at 1-800-535-4555.