The holidays are a time to enjoy food and people you love — but a nasty bout of food poisoning can ruin all of the cheer.
When it comes to holiday meals, there’s definitely one guest you don’t want at your dinner table: food-borne illness. It happens when disease-causing germs or harmful toxins contaminate the food we eat. The most common food-borne germs in the US are Salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, and Staphylococcus aureus.
The typical symptoms of food-borne illness (also referred to as food poisoning) include diarrhea, vomiting, and cramping and they can start anywhere from hours to days after you eat the contaminated food. Most of the time, food-borne illnesses will go away in a few days and medical treatment isn't necessary. But people with weaker immune systems — pregnant women, the elderly, chemotherapy patients — are at higher risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year about 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick and 3,000 die from food-borne illnesses.
Fortunately, there are some simple rules you can follow to reduce the risk of food-borne illness and make sure your cooking doesn't make everyone else ill.
Thanksgiving presents a lot of opportunities for food to get contaminated and make people sick. Cooks (both seasoned and inexperienced) are preparing a bunch of different of foods they don't normally make and for a large number of people. There’s usually a raw turkey involved, which is much bigger and difficult to cook than your average chicken. And food generally sits out for a longer time and leftovers are eaten days, if not weeks, after the meal.
So, what are the most common cooking mistakes that lead to food-borne infections and how can you avoid them? We reached out to germ expert Kelly Reynolds, associate professor of environmental health at the University of Arizona, and consulted the most recent Thanksgiving food safety guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to find out.
1. Do not cook if you're sick — or at least get some help and wear gloves.
So you spent weeks planning the menu, shopping at different grocery stores, and finding Pinterest recipes — and come Thanksgiving day, you wake up sick as a dog. But the feast must go on, right? Yes, but you should get someone to fill in for you or help out. “You want to minimize the chances that you contaminate the food or surfaces that your guests will come into contact with,” Reynolds says. But the type of illness matters, too.
If you're sick with any kind of contagious stomach bug, you really shouldn't cook. "If you don't wash your hands properly after using the bathroom (which most people don’t), you can easily contaminate the food you’re cooking with fecal matter containing pathogens like norovirus," Reynolds says. If you do decide to cook, wash your hands constantly or wear plastic gloves just to be safe.
Colds and flus, on the other hand, are usually transmitted through the respiratory route and not through ingestion — so it's more likely that you'd get someone sick by contaminating surfaces like countertops, plates, doorknobs, etc. If you're going to cook, just wash your hands often (especially after touching your face or blowing your nose) and disinfect common surfaces before your guests arrive.
2. Wash your hands properly before and during cooking.
Even if you aren't sick, you can still cross-contaminate food and surfaces with germs from your hands, especially if you’re handling raw poultry and meat. "Proper hand washing with soap and water is probably the best thing you can do, but most people don’t remember to wash their hands properly," Reynolds said. So here’s how to do it the right way:
1. Run your hands under clean, running water (hot or cold).
2. Lather up your hands and fingers with soap.
3. Scrub for 20 seconds (or as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice).
4. Rinse your hands with clean water.
5. Dry your hands completely using a clean towel, a dryer, or let them air-dry.
3. Don't thaw a frozen turkey by leaving it on the counter — it's the perfect temperature for bacteria to grow.
"Bacteria multiply the fastest between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which we call the 'danger zone' because the bacteria will grow to dangerous levels that cause serious illness," Reynolds says. So you definitely don’t want your turkey sitting at room temperature for hours. “What happens is the outside layer of the turkey gets in the danger zone while the inside is still frozen, so by the time the whole thing is thawed bacteria have grown at a rapid rate in certain parts of the turkey," Reynolds says. You can minimize the time your turkey spends in the danger zone by thawing it safely using one of the methods below.
4. Instead, thaw your frozen turkey safely using either the fridge, cold water, or the microwave method.
These methods ensure that the turkey thaws at a steady, safe temperature — one that is warm enough to actually help it defrost, but still cold enough to keep bacteria from multiplying rapidly. Thawing is an art form, folks.
Refrigerator: If you're thawing your frozen turkey in the fridge, the USDA recommends allowing 24 hours for every four to five pounds. "If you have a big turkey it can take days to thaw, so plan ahead," Reynolds says. You'll want to keep the bird in it's original wrapper and place it in a pan to catch any raw juices that leak out — once it's thawed, you can keep it in the fridge for up to two days.
Cold water: "The bath of cold water will help the frozen turkey thaw faster and more evenly," Reynolds says. Make sure to wrap your turkey securely in a plastic bag so water can't leak in — you do not want a waterlogged turkey, she says. Submerge the whole bird in cold water, and the USDA recommends 30 minutes for every pound. "You'll need to change the water every 30 minutes because it'll get too cold and stop thawing evenly," Reynolds says. Once the turkey is thawed from the cold water bath, cook it immediately.
Microwave: "The microwave will thaw your turkey much faster so it's spending less time in the danger zone," Reynolds says. But do not bank on using this method until you've checked that your turkey actually fits in there! Read the owner's manual to find out which power level to use and how many minutes you'll need per pound. You'll want to remove the outside wrapping and place it in a dish to catch the raw juices, then cook immediately once it's thawed.
5. Buy your fresh turkey no more than 2 days before cooking and keep it safely wrapped in the fridge.
"Fresh and frozen turkeys are both safe, the only real difference is that frozen turkeys just last longer so you can buy them way ahead of time and store in the freezer," Reynolds says. So if you are going the fresh turkey route, just make sure to buy it no more than one or two days before cooking and keep it in the fridge right up until cooking time to keep the bacteria from multiplying.
"When you store the fresh turkey in the fridge, you want to avoid it coming into contact with any other food in there since the raw juices can contain bacteria like Salmonella," Reynolds says. She suggests keeping your bird wrapped in a plastic bag and placing it in a pan large enough to catch any juices or drippings. "Make sure it isn’t touching any other food items, especially raw fruits and vegetables that won’t get cooked."
6. Do not buy a pre-stuffed raw turkey.
Seriously, just make the stuffing at home where you know what’s going in there. The USDA warns against buying pre-stuffed fresh turkeys because they aren't made under controlled conditions and you can't ensure they were handled properly, so the stuffing could be contaminated with tons of rapidly multiplying bacteria. If you want to buy a pre-stuffed turkey, opt for frozen instead and follow instructions to ensure it cooks properly (more on that in a bit).
7. Don't wash or rinse the turkey with water before cooking.
If you already do this, don't worry — you aren't alone. According to the most recent food safety survey from the FDA, a whopping 68% of Americans said they *always* rinse their turkey before cooking. "We all grew up doing this and it's like second-nature for many people, so it's a hard habit to break," Reynolds says.
"Rinsing the turkey doesn't remove enough germs to make any difference — it just makes it easier for raw juices to spread around and get all over the sink and counters, increasing the risk of cross-contamination," Reynolds says. Those raw juices can splash around and contaminate other food you're cooking with — things like Salmonella and Campylobacter, which cause nasty diarrheal illnesses. "If there's any bacteria on the turkey, it's the cooking that will remove it because the high temperatures actually kill bacteria — water doesn't," Reynolds says.
Still not convinced? Read this article about why you shouldn't wash your poultry.
8. Keep raw poultry, meat, seafood, and their juices completely separate from foods that won't get cooked.
When you're preparing all these different types of food on one day and presumably in one kitchen, it's easy for foods and surfaces to get cross-contaminated. So make sure to keep any raw poultry, meat, and seafood separate from foods that won't get cooked — that means when you're shopping at the store, when you're storing all the food in the fridge, and when you're cooking the big meal. "Don't let bacteria from the raw juices spread to other foods that won't get cooked (or cooked long enough) to kill that bacteria," Reynolds says.
Ideally, you'd reserve one area of your kitchen or counter space just for preparing the raw poultry and meat so it's as far as possible from the food that won't get cooked or is already cooked — like finger foods and appetizers, fresh salads, fruits, etc. You should also consider using separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils if possible.
9. Wash your cutting boards and utensils with hot soapy water immediately after using them for raw meat, poultry, and eggs.
If you're using the same kitchenware to prepare all of your food, that's totally fine. We don't all have kitchens full of multiple cutting boards, knives, and mixing bowls to use for separate foods like Ina Garten. But you do want to get rid of any raw juices as soon as possible so there's less of a chance for the bacteria to spread around.
You can do this by washing all food-contact surfaces that touch raw poultry, meat, seafood, and eggs with hot soapy water and drying with a clean towel, Reynolds says. You should also sanitize any surfaces (like countertops and microwave plates) in between using them to prep raw meat or poultry and other foods. You should also try to mop up raw juices with a paper towel you can throw away instead of a sponge or a dishcloth that you'll use again.
10. If you aren't confident that you can safely cook your stuffing inside the turkey, just cook it in a casserole dish instead.
It's okay to cook your stuffing inside the turkey, Reynolds says, but as long as you do so properly and you use a thermometer to make sure the stuffing reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The CDC recommends waiting to stuff the turkey until right before it'll go in the oven, and stuffing it loosely so everything will get cooked. "Any stuffing that doesn't reach 165 degrees may have bacteria that cause food-borne illness," Reynolds says.
Seriously, if you aren’t sure about cooking your stuffing inside the turkey or you're a brand-new cook, maybe just cook it in a casserole dish. "The dish ensures your stuffing will get cooked evenly and it's much easier to see if it’s done," Reynolds says. For more stuffing tips, check out the USDA stuffing and food safety page.
11. Use a thermometer to tell if your turkey is cooked, not your eyes.
"You cannot tell if the turkey is done by the color or the way it looks, it could still have parts inside that are raw or undercooked," Reynolds says. First, the USDA recommends setting your oven no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit and placing the bird in a shallow roasting pan. "You should use a meat or food thermometer to make sure the internal temperature has reached at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit," Reynolds says. Never cook a turkey without a meat thermometer.
12. And make sure you poke the thermometer into different parts of the turkey, not just one spot.
"Some people just stick the thermometer in one part of the turkey, but you could still have other parts that haven't reached 165 degrees yet," Reynolds says. So don't just jab the thermometer in the top of the nicely roasted breast and call it a day. Poke it all around the turkey — near the breast, the thigh bones, under the wings, and inside the stuffing cavity — to make sure the whole thing is completely cooked.
13. Bring your gravy to a rolling boil when reheating.
If you're cooking any sauces or gravies, you want to make sure they don't sit around at room temperature until the turkey is ready to be served. "If gravies and sauces are sitting in a pot in the danger zone for over two hours, bacteria can reach dangerous levels," Reynolds says. So make sure to reheat your gravy and sauces by bringing them to a rolling boil on the stovetop. Who likes lukewarm gravy anyways?
14. Don't eat cooked food that's been sitting out all day long.
If your Thanksgiving turkey and side dishes have been sitting out in the kitchen or dining room literally all day long, don't eat them. "When cooked food is sitting at room temperature, in that danger zone, bacteria are multiplying rapidly and the more bacteria you're exposed to, the more likely you are to actually get sick," Reynolds says. Clostridium perfringens is a common food-borne pathogen found in poultry, meats, and gravies, often when the food has been sitting at warm “danger zone” temperatures for a long time.
Sure, it may sound like a waste but you really want to minimize the risk of exposure to food-borne pathogens, Reynolds says, especially if you’re pregnant or immunocompromised because the health risks are much more serious. And just because you aren’t sick right after the meal, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. “Sometimes it can take a week or so for symptoms to show up so people don’t even realize that they’ve gotten food poisoning or diarrhea from Thanksgiving because it happens in early December,” Reynolds says.
15. Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours or as soon as you can.
After you enjoy the meal you cooked (seriously, sit down and enjoy your dinner because you worked hard!), make sure all the food goes into the fridge as soon as possible. You have about two hours to refrigerate cooked food, Reynolds says, before the bacteria starts reaching dangerous levels. The CDC recommends setting your fridge to 40°F or colder, and checking it periodically after you load in the leftovers to make sure it's cold enough.
"Remember, when you put the food in the fridge you’re not setting the bacteria count back to zero or removing what's already grown, you’re just stopping it from growing even more," Reynolds says. So the sooner you can get them in the fridge, the better. And don't forget that your pies are also cooked foods and they need to go in the fridge too.
16. Portion up leftovers before putting them in fridge.
When storing food, you want to make sure you do it correctly so the leftovers actually cool down and get below 40 degrees, which slows bacterial growth. “You’re putting a lot of hot food in the fridge on Thanksgiving, so you want to portion everything up into smaller Tupperware containers so it cools down faster,” Reynolds says.
Do not just throw some Saran Wrap over the entire casserole dish or pot full of hot food and shove it directly into the fridge. “If you do this, it can take up to 24 hours for internal temperature of the food to get into a safe zone,” Reynolds says. Putting a bunch of really hot food and pans into the fridge can also raise the fridge temperature slightly, pushing it above 40 degrees Fahrenheit so all the other food is sitting at an unsafe temperature, too.
17. Eat or freeze your leftovers within four days of Thanksgiving.
Leftovers are probably the best part of Thanksgiving — I mean who doesn’t love a good turkey and stuffing sandwich the next day? But you still have to be careful with leftovers because even after they go in the fridge, they can still have bacteria at levels that make you ill. “Eat your leftovers after no more than three or four days — you’ve probably taken them out of the fridge many times since Thanksgiving so they’ve probabaly tested that danger zone several times,” Reynolds says.
If you want your leftovers to last longer, just freeze them! They can last months this way. When you do eat them, just make sure to reheat everything properly so it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.