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Holiday Food Safety

Keep the holidays happy and healthy by preventing foodborne illness. Avoiding food poisoning is especially important for people with immune systems weakened by cancer treatment. To schedule a consultation with a registered dietitian, call Medical Nutrition Therapy Services at (206) 288-1148.

The leading cause of foodborne illness is eating perishable food that has been held longer than two hours at room temperature. The temperature range between 40°F and 140°F is called the "danger zone" because bacteria can grow very rapidly in this temperature zone. To help prevent food poisoning, keep hot foods at 140°F or higher and cold foods at 40°F or lower until serving time.

These tips help you handle a variety of holiday situations.  

Buffets and Potlucks

At events such as buffets or potlucks where food is set out for guests, avoid adding a fresh batch of food to existing bowls or platters that have been sitting out. Prepare a number of smaller platters and dishes ahead of time. Serve smaller bowls of food and replace bowls as needed. For added safety, put foods on ice or over a heat source to keep them out of the "danger zone" between 40°F and 140°F.

Late Arriving Guests

Do not let any cooked food, meat, or poultry remain in the “danger zone” for over two hours. Keep hot foods safely in the oven until guests arrive. An oven temperature of 200°F to 250°F should be sufficient to hold food at the correct temperature. Place a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the roast or poultry, or in the center of a casserole. Adjust the oven temperature so that food stays at an internal temperature of 140°F or higher. To prevent dryness, cover the dishes with a lid or wrap with aluminum foil.

Handling Take-Out Foods

Take food home immediately from restaurants. Do not leave take-out foods at room temperature longer than two hours. Refrigerate cold foods at 40°F or lower until serving time. If the food is hot and will be eaten within two hours, keep it at 140°F or above in a 200°F to 250°F oven. If hot foods are being picked up two hours or more in advance, refrigerate them. If not eating hot foods immediately, cool them quickly to below 40°F. See Storing Leftovers for guidelines on handling "thick" foods, such as stews and layers of meat slices, so they cool faster to a safe temperature.

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Traveling With Foods

When traveling with food or if asking guests to bring food, be mindful of safe temperatures. Cold foods should not be out of refrigeration for more than two hours, including the time the food is left at room temperature during serving. Hot foods must be kept hot.

People traveling a long distance might bring non-perishables such as rolls, breads, and cookies. Those traveling an hour or less might more safely bring perishable foods. Wrap hot foods in foil and towels to keep them warm. Place cold foods in a cooler with ice or gel packs. Plan to serve foods shortly after guests arrive.

Refrigerate Pumpkin Pie

Bacteria grow in moist foods that contain eggs and milk, such as custard and pumpkin pie. Keep these foods refrigerated at all times after baking. Do not leave them longer than two hours at room temperature.

Avoid Raw Cookie Dough

Do not eat raw cookie dough; it is best to wait until the cookies are baked. Uncooked eggs in cookie dough may contain harmful bacteria, such as salmonella.

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Thawing Turkey

Do not thaw turkey at room temperature.

Reminder: Remove giblets from turkey cavities after thawing. Cook separately.

Handling Raw Turkey

  1. Wash hands, utensils, and all work areas with hot soapy water before and after handling the raw turkey.
  2. After washing, sanitize surfaces that touch the raw turkey with a bleach solution of 1/3 cup unscented household beach mixed with 3-1/3 cups water.

Thawing Time in the Refrigerator (40°F)

When thawing a whole turkey in the refrigerator, plan for 24 hours per five pounds.

  • 8 to 12 pounds: 2 to 3 days
  • 12 to 16 pounds: 3 to 4 days
  • 16 to 20 pounds: 4 to 5 days
  • 20 to 24 pounds: 5 to 6 days

Thaw in a large pan to catch drips (preferably on the bottom refrigerator shelf).

Thawing Time in Cold Water

For thawing a whole turkey submerged in cold water, plan for 30 minutes per pound of turkey.

  • 8 to 12 pounds: 4 to 6 hours
  • 12 to 16 pounds: 6 to 8 hours
  • 16 to 20 pounds: 8 to 10 hours
  • 20 to 24 pounds: 10 to 12 hours

Wrap turkey securely so that water cannot leak through the wrapping. Change the water every 30 minutes. Season as desired and place directly in roasting pan. Cook immediately after thawing.

Thawing Time in the Microwave

Thawing in the microwave is not recommended due to possible bacterial growth. Check the manufacturer’s instructions for the turkey size that will fit into your oven, the minutes per pound, and the power level to use for thawing. Remove all wrapping. Place on a microwave-safe dish to catch juices. Plan to cook the turkey immediately after thawing since some parts will be in the “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F, allowing bacterial growth.

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Turkey Stuffing

Recommendations for immunosuppressed people: Bake stuffing at 325°F in a separate dish rather than inside the turkey. The internal temperature of the baked stuffing should be 165°F or greater. For outside gatherings, ask the host to set aside a portion for you cooked by this method.

Stuffing Separate

Bake stuffing in a greased, covered casserole dish during the last hour that the turkey roasts (leave covered during the first half of baking time; uncover during the second half of baking time.) Bake until stuffing reaches 165°F (check temperature with food thermometer).

Stuffing in the Turkey

Mix dressing and stuffing ingredients immediately before putting in the oven. Stuff the turkey lightly. Allow ¾-cup stuffing per pound of turkey. The internal temperature of the stuffing must reach 165°F (check temperature with food thermometer).

Stuffed Turkeys: After removing the baked turkey from the oven, remove stuffing immediately. If the turkey is done baking before the stuffing reaches 165°F, remove the stuffing and finish baking in a separate casserole dish until it reaches 165°F.

Roasting Turkey

To roast a turkey, bake it at an oven temperature of 325°F.

Weight (pounds) Conventional Oven
Unstuffed (hours)
Conventional Oven
Stuffed (hours)
4 to 6 (breast) 1 ½ to 2 ¼ Not Applicable
6 to 8 (breast) 2 ¼ to 3 ¼ Not Applicable
8 to 12 2 ¾ to 3 3 to 3 ½ 
12 to 14 3 to 3 ¾ 3 ½ to 4
14 to 18 3 ¾ to 4 ¼ 4 to 4 ¼ 
18 to 20 4 ¼ to 4 ½ 4 ¼ to 4 ¾ 
20 to 24 4 ½ to 5 4 ¾ to 5 ¼ 
24 to 30 5 to 5 ¼  5 ¼ to 6 ¼

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Place turkey breast-side-up on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Insert an oven/heat resistant meat thermometer into the inner part of the thigh (not touching the bone). 
  • For easier cleanup, add ½-cup of water to the bottom of the roasting pan.
  • An aluminum foil tent may be placed loosely over the turkey for the first one- to one-and-one- half hours of baking, and then removed for browning.
  • At the end of the cooking time, use a meat thermometer and confirm that each of the recommended temperatures is attained:
    • 170°F in breast
    • 180°F in thigh
    • 165°F in stuffing
  • When the turkey is done, remove all stuffing. Let the bird stand 20 minutes for easier carving and juicier meat. Keep the rest of the turkey and stuffing hot in the oven set at 250°F.

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Storing Leftovers

Do not let food items remain at room temperature longer than two hours. Discard any turkey, stuffing and gravy left at room temperature longer than two hours. Store meat, stuffing, and gravy separately.

Follow these guidelines for foods cooked ahead of time that will be reheated later.

  • Refrigerate leftover foods in shallow uncovered containers to allow heat to escape so the food will cool more quickly. Stir the refrigerated food occasionally to help it cool; use a clean spoon each time. Cover tightly when cooled.
  • Remove stuffing from the turkey cavity before serving.
  • Carve leftover turkey from the bone.
  • Limit the depth of thicker foods (such as stews, dressing, gravy, hot puddings, and layers of meat slices) to two inches.  
  • Keep turkey and stuffing no longer than three days in the refrigerator. Use gravy within one to two days. These items may be frozen for two to six months.
  • When serving leftovers, bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a boil. Heat other leftovers to 165°F in an oven set no lower than 325°F. 

For More Information

These phone numbers and websites provide cooking tips, recipes, advice and answers to questions on food safety. All listed times are Pacific Standard Time.

When using information from these resources, continue to be guided by recommendations from dietitians at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance:

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hot Line

www.fsis.usda.gov
(888) 674-6854
TTY: 1-800-256-7072
Open 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays year-round; 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. Thanksgiving Day; Closed Christmas Day; Automated service is available 24 hours a day, and is available in Spanish.

National Turkey Federation

www.eatturkey.com
Information on turkey, food safety, and recipes.

Butterball Turkey Talk-Line

www.butterball.com
(800) 288-8372.
Phones are answered daily during November and December. Closed Christmas Day.

Empire Kosher Poultry Hot Line

www.empirekosher.com
(717) 436-7055
Year-round hours: Monday-Thursday 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Friday 5 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Ocean Spray Consumer Help Line

www.oceanspray.com
(800) 662-3263
6 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays year-round, including Thanksgiving Day; Closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Fleischmann's Yeast

www.breadworld.com
(800) 777-4959

Land O’Lakes

www.landolakes.com
(800) 328-4155

Nestlé Consumer Services (Toll House and Libby’s Pumpkin) Baking Information Line

Baking tips and techniques.
www.verybestbaking.com
Toll House: (800) 851-0512 or Libby’s: (800) 854-0374
Weekdays 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed holidays.

General Mills/Betty Crocker

www.bettycrocker.com
(800) 446-1898
5:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays.