Giving Thanks for Food Safety (and Turkey!) at Thanksgiving

When the Pilgrims celebrated the “first” Thanksgiving, it’s very likely turkey wasn’t the centerpiece of the meal.  In fact, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, the first dinner may have featured wildfowl and corn for bread or porridge.  It wasn’t until the 19th century that we began to the see the traditional Thanksgiving dinner take root. Fast forward to modern day America and we see the turkey has solidified its place in American history and culture. 

Planning on eating turkey this holiday season?  Well, you’re not alone.  According to the National Turkey Federation, 88% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving. On major holidays, turkey is a mainstay, with 22 million turkeys consumed on Christmas and 19 million turkeys consumed on Easter.  A whopping 46 million turkeys, or 736 million pounds of turkey, is consumed each year at Thanksgiving alone!

Traditions are what make the holidays memorable and festive.  Following these practical, safe cooking practices from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can ensure you have a safe and enjoyable holiday turkey: 

1. Plan Ahead and Pick the Right-Sized Turkey

When selecting a turkey, it’s important to know how much you will need.  According to, “allow 1 pound of turkey per person for a fresh or frozen turkey, or 1¾ pound per person for a frozen, pre-stuffed turkey.” However, if everyone at your Thanksgiving table prefers turkey breast, you may want a larger bird (or, it may make more sense to buy two turkey breasts instead of the whole turkey). Also, if you love having leftover turkey sandwiches (which, for some, is half the point!), plan ahead for this by choosing a bigger turkey.

2. Fresh or frozen? 

If you want to buy well in advance, recommends choosing a frozen turkey.  Turkeys can be frozen indefinitely, but for best quality, they should be cooked within one year.  Once thawed, it is safe for two more days.  Should you prefer a fresh turkey, buy it no more than two days before cooking.

3. How long does a frozen turkey need to thaw?

Begin thawing a frozen turkey in the refrigerator before Thanksgiving Day to ensure it is completely thawed in time. recommends allowing 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey, which would be four to five days for a 20-pound bird, so buy large birds well in advance! Do not thaw the turkey on the counter or in the sink, as this could introduce foodborne bacteria. If your turkey is not fully thawed when you’re ready to put it in the oven, recommends submerging it in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes until it thaws.

4. Keep it Safe

Turkey should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F – as measured with a food thermometer – to destroy any bacteria, reducing the risk of foodborne illness. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. If it is stuffed, the stuffing temperature should also read 165 °F.

5. Best Roasting Practices

When roasting, set the oven temperature no lower than 325 °F.  Place the turkey breast-side up in a shallow roasting pan.  For optimum safety, cook stuffing in a casserole, as bacteria on the raw turkey could transfer to the stuffing. Remember to use a food thermometer to ensure the turkey and stuffing have reached a safe minimum temperature of 165 °F.  Finally, let the turkey stand for 20 minutes before removing stuffing and carving.

A number of factors can affect roasting times, including:

  • A partially frozen turkey requires longer cooking (and may not cook evenly).
  • A stuffed turkey takes longer to cook than a fresh or frozen turkey of the same size.
  • Turkey will cook faster in a dark roasting pan than in a shiny one.
  • The depth and size of the pan will affect heat circulation.
  • The use of a foil tent for the entire time can slow cooking.
  • Use of the roasting pan's lid speeds cooking.
  • Use of an oven cooking bag can accelerate cooking time.
  • The oven rack position can affect even cooking and heat circulation.
  • If a turkey or its pan is too large for the oven, it could prevent adequate heat circulation.

The 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend choosing lean or low-fat meat and poultry.  Turkey and other protein-rich foods can be an important part of any holiday dinner, not only because they represent cultural traditions, but because their protein content contributes to satiety. Look for additional protein sources in your main or side dishes such as lean meat, fish, dairy, and beans at the holiday table and you’ll be thankful you did.

Fun Facts About Turkey: 

  • Male turkeys are called “toms,” or “gobblers,” after the “gobble” call they use when announcing themselves to females; females are called “hens.”
  • An adult gobbler weighs 16 to 22 pounds on average and has sharp spurs on his legs for fighting.  A hen weighs 8 to 12 pounds and has no beard or spurs.
  • Turkeys can run up to 25 miles per hour and fly as fast as 55 miles per hour!
  • George H.W. Bush was the first U.S. President to pardon a turkey. On November 14, 1989, he announced the bird had been granted “a presidential pardon as of right now” and he sent the turkey on its way to a farm in Virginia.  With that, a holiday tradition was born.


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