How to Cook a Turkey Without Giving Your Family Food Poisoning

Don’t skimp on these Thanksgiving food safety guidelines.

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It’s finally your turn to cook Thanksgiving dinner. You have SO many ideas for mouth-watering Thanksgiving sides and healthy desserts to finish off the meal. You’re confident that your holiday dinner will be a hit. 

Fast-forward to the end of the meal, everyone has smiles on their faces from full-tummy satisfaction. Then your guests start to complain that they’re feeling a little queasy—and let you know that they’re going to call it a night. The next day you find out that your family and friends where up all night sick. How embarrassing. What could it have been?

Although there are a plethora of rookie cooking mistakes that could cause food poisoning, there’s one suspect that may be more common during Thanksgiving: The turkey. Cooking and preparing poultry incorrectly is the main cause of poultry-associated foodborne disease outbreaks. 

Thankfully, that Thanksgiving nightmare doesn’t have to be a reality. If you’re responsible for the headliner turkey dish this holiday, make sure you follow these food safety rules:

  • Don’t thaw your turkey on the counter. Leaving a turkey at room temp can cause bacteria to grow. When thawing a turkey, do it in the fridge, microwave, or in a sink of cold water that’s switched out every 30 minutes.
  • Don’t cross-contaminate. Raw turkey can contaminate anything it touches. Use separate cutting boards and plates when handling, and make sure to wash hands and utensils that come in contact with the raw turkey immediately.
  • Cook your stuffing safely. If you’re stuffing your turkey, add it just before you cook the bird so it doesn’t sit out (letting bacteria grow), or cook stuffing separately in a casserole dish. Use a food thermometer to make sure stuffing hits 165°F—the magic bacteria-killing temperature.
  • Check the temperature of your turkey before you take it out of the oven. When cooking the turkey, set oven to 325°F and cook turkey breast side up. The cooking time will depend on the weight of the bird, but if the internal temperature reaches 165°F, you know it’s safe to eat. (Be sure to check the temperature of the stuffing, and the breast, thigh, and wing joint, too.) Check out this chart from the USDA to find out how long to cook your turkey. Once it’s done, turn off the oven and let it sit in there for 20 minutes before carving.
  • Once you fill up your plate, wrap that turkey up. After you carve the turkey and serve your guests, it’s a good idea to wrap it up ASAP and stick it in the fridge. Letting your turkey sit out not only allows bacteria to grow (bacteria can double in just 20 minutes!), but it may also entice Fido to jump up and grab a snack, which can lead to a trip to the vet. (Learn more about why turkey bones could be deadly for dogs.)

By following these rules, you’ll be able to enjoy your piece of turkey and your Thanksgiving holiday with a little piece of mind.

Love Thanksgiving leftovers? Learn how long it’s safe to keep your holiday eats in the fridge.