Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County

An overhead image of a golden brown roasted turkey in a roasting pan.
Cook your turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees to ensure destruction of potentially harmful bacteria. Photo by Alison Marras on Unsplash.

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. Family, favorite foods, fall weather, football, and a fridge full of leftovers – other than a nap on the sofa, what more do you need? Answer: a plan for safe food preparation and handling.

Every year, one in six Americans comes down with a case of foodborne illness, or food poisoning. Most experience a day or two of diarrhea and nausea, then get back to normal. For some people, however, foodborne illness causes permanent health complications or death.

The good news is that most types of foodborne illness can be prevented. Follow these four guidelines when preparing meals and storing leftovers to keep your family and guests safe.

1. Clean and Sanitize – To prevent the spread of germs, make sure that everything that touches food is clean and healthy. This includes hands, cutting boards, utensils, plates, faucets, handles, clothing, and people. Keep pets and sick people out of the food prep area. Before handling any food or tools, wash hands with soap under hot, running water. Wash all utensils, cutting boards, plates, and counters with clean cloths. Don’t use a kitchen sponge; they can hold and transfer germs.

Cleaning and sanitizing are two separate steps. Cleaning involves washing items to remove food particles and other debris. Sanitizing is a second step to kill germs. Only solid, non-porous items can be sanitized. Mix one teaspoon of unscented household bleach with one quart of water to make an economical sanitizer, and apply to countertops, faucets, refrigerator handles, and other surfaces and allow them to air dry. Be sure to wash the bleach mixture from your hands.

Do not wash raw poultry. Bacteria from poultry can splash onto other surfaces.

2. Separate – Because cooking is the only way to kill bacteria and other food pathogens, it’s critical to prevent contamination of foods served fresh, such as salads, cut fruit, and ready-to-eat prepared foods. Prepare foods in steps that keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood away from foods that are served without being cooked.

Always use separate utensils and cutting boards for fresh produce and meat or poultry, and where possible, prepare all fresh foods first. Wash cutting boards, knives, and other food preparation tools after each use, before beginning to prepare the next dish. Use fresh, clean plates and platters to serve the cooked food.

3. Cook – Cook food to the proper temperature for the appropriate amount of time. For turkeys, cook until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured by a food thermometer inserted at the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, or the innermost part of the thigh. Cooking the turkey to 180 degrees F eliminates pink meat and rubbery texture. Cook stuffing in a separate dish, not inside the turkey. Allow the turkey to stand for 20 minutes after removing from the oven before carving.

4. Chill – Always refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours of the meal. Use leftovers in the refrigerator within 3-4 days and frozen leftovers within 2-6 months. Reheat leftovers thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees F to destroy bacteria.

For more information on holiday food safety, visit the USDA Countdown to a Food-safe Thanksgiving Day website at https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2020/11/12/countdown-food-safe-thanksgiving-day-faqs.