• Photo credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    Photo credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – If you’re hosting a holiday meal, make food safety a priority or you might end up with ungrateful guests.

“Hosting a holiday meal often means having more people at the table, serving a wider variety of dishes and perhaps tackling some unfamiliar recipes. If you’re not careful, all those ingredients can add up to foodborne illness,” says Londa Nwadike, food safety specialist for University of Missouri Extension and Kansas State University Research and Extension.

With Thanksgiving coming up, Nwadike offers these preparation and safety tips for those planning to prepare a traditional turkey dinner.


“If you want to have leftovers after Thanksgiving, make sure you buy 1 pound of whole turkey per person,” Nwadike says.

A rule of thumb is 3/4 pound of turkey per person if you don’t want leftovers or if you’re cooking a turkey breast, she adds.

“Frozen turkey must be thawed in the refrigerator or in cold water, not on the kitchen counter,” warns Nwadike. The safest way to defrost a turkey is in the refrigerator. Allow one day of thawing for every 5 pounds of turkey. To thaw in cold water, completely submerge the wrapped turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes so the outer layer of turkey won’t get warm enough to support microbial growth. This method requires about 30 minutes of thawing for every pound of turkey. Be sure to clean and sanitize the sink after removing the turkey.

Don’t rinse turkey and other meats before cooking. “That will only spread those germs around the sink, which can cross-contaminate other foods,” she says. “Any bacteria that might be rinsed off the surface would be easily killed by cooking in the oven.”

To cook the turkey, set the oven for 325 degrees. An 8- to 12-pound unstuffed turkey will take about 2 3/4 to three hours to cook. A stuffed turkey of the same size will take three to 3 1/2 hours, Nwadike says.

To determine if the turkey is safely cooked, use a food thermometer to make sure the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast has reached a minimum temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure that the thermometer is not touching bone as the temperature of the bone will go up faster than the meat.

To stuff or not to stuff

“Many people love to eat stuffing. Unfortunately, microorganisms love it as well,” Nwadike says.

The safest method is to cook stuffing outside the bird. If you do choose to stuff your turkey, stuff it loosely just before cooking and make sure the stuffing is moist. Like the turkey, stuffing should be cooked to at least 165 degrees.

Pies and any other baked goods with fillings made of eggs and milk, including pumpkin pies and cheesecake, need to reach an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees when baking. Refrigerate after baking or purchasing.


Refrigerate the turkey (with meat removed from the carcass) and stuffing separately in shallow containers within two hours of cooking. If sending leftovers home with guests who will be traveling more than two hours, make sure leftovers are packed in a cooler with ice or ice packs.

Leftover turkey will keep in the fridge for three to four days, but gravy and stuffing will only keep for one or two days. You can also safely freeze leftovers, but use them within two to six months for best quality. Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees.

For more MU Extension resources on food safety, visit

Editors: This news release is one in a series of holiday-related articles about food and food safety. The entire series is available at and through the links below.

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