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7 Commonly Asked Thanksgiving Food Safety Questions

The memories of Thanksgiving are near and dear to the hearts of many. The smell of the turkey, the taste of pumpkin pie, and the sound of laughter filling every space in the home. Nothing ruins these memories faster than a case of foodborne illness quickly spreading through the family. The problem is, most people don’t know how to keep food safe during Thanksgiving because they are not used to making such large quantities of food at once.

We’ve done some research and have outlined seven of the most common food safety questions related to Thanksgiving. Use our answers to keep your family and guests safe this holiday season. 

1. How do I thaw a turkey?

Turkey, as well as other meats and poultry, can be a main contributor to food poisoning at the holidays if handled incorrectly. The first step in preparing your turkey is to thaw it properly. Never thaw a turkey on the counter overnight.  This will allow the food to be in the Temperature Danger Zone too long. Pathogens can grow to dangerous levels and make your friends and family sick.

Instead, follow the proper turkey-thawing guidelines outlined in our Thanksgiving Thaw article. Here are some general guidelines for thawing your turkey in the fridge:

  • 5 pounds: 1 day
  • 10 pounds: 2 days
  • 15 pounds: 3 days
  • 20 pounds: 4 days

The rule of thumb for thawing a turkey is to give one day of thawing for every five pounds of turkey. Once your turkey is thawed, be sure to cook it within a day or two.

2. What temperature does turkey need to be cooked to?

When cooking your turkey, be sure to cook it at temperatures above 325°F (163°C). When the turkey is cooked, use a meat thermometer to ensure it has reached an internal temperature of 165° F (74° C), the proper temperature for poultry to be cooked to. Make sure to stick your meat thermometer in the thickest parts of the turkey (the thickest part of the breast, innermost part of the thigh, and innermost part of the wing) to make sure it is fully cooked.

3. How long can I leave Thanksgiving food out?

Cold foods, such as salads and cut vegetables, should be kept under 41°F (5°C). According to the 2017 FDA Food Code, cold foods can be held up to 6 hours as long as their temperature does not reach above 70°F (21°C). It is recommended that these foods be put in the refrigerator after 2 hours. Keeping foods out for too long encourages bacteria growth that could potentially make people sick.

Hot foods, such as turkey and casseroles, should ideally be kept above 135°F (57°C). If it drops below this temperature for more than two hours, dangerous bacteria could grow on it, many of which could cause food poisoning. After two hours, this food should be immediately refrigerated or thrown away.

4. Can I leave pie on the counter overnight?

Any pie that includes a TCS food must be stored in the refrigerator.This includes custard based pies such as pumpkin and lemon meringue because of their egg and milk content. Most pies will keep for up to 2-3 days. Look for signs of spoilage, like a soggy crust or mold, before eating. Another sign of a spoiled pie is the smell. If it does not smell right, trust your senses and throw it away.

5. Should I let my leftovers cool off or put them straight in the fridge?

As soon as the meal is finished, put the leftover food in the refrigerator. Do not allow your food to cool to room temperature before putting it in the fridge. The goal is to keep the food at room temperature for the least amount of time possible.

6. How should I store my Thanksgiving leftovers?

Instead of throwing all the turkey or casserole in a deep container, choose a large, shallow container or several small containers. This allows for the food to cool down quickly when put in the refrigerator. If the inside of your refrigerator begins to get too warm, put ice inside to cool it back down.

7. How long will Thanksgiving leftovers last?

No one likes to waste food, but there comes a point when food must be thrown out. Most Thanksgiving leftovers can be kept up to 3-4 days after they are made. Freezing food is a good option if you have more leftovers than you can eat in the next few days. Freeze food in airtight containers to prevent freezer burn. If you suspect the food has started to spoil, throw it away. As the saying goes, when in doubt, throw it out.

Following these guidelines will help keep you and your friends and family safe during the holidays. For more foods safety tips and training, visit

– Juli Shelley

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