The Perspective

Talking Turkey – and Ham, and Yams…

Food is an important part of our holiday festivities. Unfortunately, one in six people in the United States will get sick from something they eat or drink this year, and about half of those foodborne illness victims will be children under 15 years old. You can help make sure your holiday feast is both tasty and safe by following food safety guidelines for preparing, serving and storing your food.

Turkey Talk

For many, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a turkey on the table. If you are purchasing a fresh turkey, buy it only one to two days before you plan to cook it. Always keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready to prepare it, and place it in a pan or on a tray to catch the juices and prevent them from spreading germs on your kitchen counters.

Thawing Turkey Three Ways

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) there are three ways to safely defrost your turkey – in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. REMEMBER, start the thawing process right before you are ready to start roasting, braising, turduckening, or whatever your sworn by, passed-down-for-generations, method of cooking a turkey might be. If you are using the refrigerator to thaw, this could mean five to six days, depending on the size of your bird.

In the Refrigerator

Keep the turkey in the original wrapper. Again, place it in a pan to catch any juices that may leak out and contaminate other foods. It generally takes about 24 hours, per four to five pounds to thaw in a refrigerator. A turkey that has thawed can remain in the refrigerator for one or two more days if necessary.

In Cold Water

If you choose to thaw your turkey in cold water, wrap it securely, making sure the water is not able to leak through and have direct contact with the bird. Place your turkey completely under cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed and DO NOT refreeze your turkey after using this thawing method.

In the Microwave

Check the owners’ manual for the size of turkey that will fit into your microwave oven. Review the recommended minutes per pound and power level to ensure proper thawing and remove all outside wrapping from the turkey. Place the turkey in a microwave safe dish to catch any juices and cook the turkey immediately. DO NOT refreeze OR refrigerate your bird after it is finished thawing using the microwave method.

REMEMBER to remove the giblets from the turkey cavity after thawing using whatever method you choose. Cook these bits separately!

Other popular dishes such as roasts, briskets, or ham should be used within 3-4 days. Just because ham may be cured, doesn’t mean it won’t go bad. Seafood dishes also appear around the holidays. Shrimp cocktail, oysters and fish dishes may be popular items in your household. As a rule, seafood should always be cooked thoroughly to minimize the risk of illness. If you choose to eat raw fish, eating items that have been frozen can kill parasites that may be present. However, freezing won’t kill everything that might cause foodborne illnesses, and cooking items is the safest way to avoid getting sick.

Fresh fruits and vegetables should be rinsed under running tap water, including those with skins or rinds (like your sweet potatoes!) that will be peeled. Do not use detergent or bleach to wash what you intend to eat. These products are not intended for people to consume. Keep fresh produce away from raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. Use separate cutting boards for these items, and clean your cutting board with soap and water between uses. Refrigerate all cut, peeled, or cooked fresh fruits and vegetables within two hours.

Food safety should not be a seasonal activity. Incorporate these tips into your kitchen practices year-round to ensure you and your family continue to enjoy healthy eating throughout the holiday season and beyond.

Have a last minute question about meat, poultry or egg products? Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline toll free at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST. Recorded messages are available 24 hours a day. Questions can also be e-mailed to To read answers to some Hotline “Panic Button” food safety questions, visit the USDA website.

Table of Contents | Read Next Story | Subscribe

The Perspective Footer