Thanksgiving: a time for reconnecting with family and friends over good food and pausing to reflect on that for which we’re most thankful. There’s nothing like a case of food poisoning to put a damper on all that, to say nothing of your plans for the following weekend.  Before you vegetarians and vegans begin feeling too smug, you’re not off the hook, either.

thanksgiving-turkey-featured.jpgAmericans endure around 76 million cases of food poisoning each year, according to estimates from the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. Of those, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die from food related illnesses. 

The perils are everywhere: thawing the turkey can be dangerous if you don’t do it correctly, stuffing is life threatening, and the dangers of cross contamination lurk behind – or beneath – everything on your kitchen counters. It’s almost enough to make you call out for pizza but a simple regimen of caution and common sense will see you, and your guests, through the occasion with nary an illness or injury. Here’s a list of pointers to help things along:

Thawing the turkey. Unless you’ve purchased the bird fresh (and refrigerated it properly) you’ll need to thaw it first, and 20 pounds of frozen turkey doesn’t thaw quickly. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends allowing 24 hours of thaw time per 5 pounds of turkey. Begin by stashing it in the refrigerator on the Sunday before the feast to start the whole process. This is the safest way to defrost the turkey. As the bird thaws, water will accumulate and you’ll need to make sure it doesn’t come into contact with – and contaminate – anything else. Place the turkey in a large pan with high sides and store it on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. You don’t want water splashing or leaking out onto the food beneath. If the bird thaws faster than you anticipated, you can store it safely up to two days in the refrigerator before cooking.

If you were late picking up the bird at the store, there’s still hope. You can always thaw it out by immersing it, still wrapped, in cold water. Allow 30 minutes per pound and plan on changing the water every half hour or your bird will be sitting in a stagnant bacterial soup. Once it’s thawed, plan on cooking it right away; cold water thawing doesn’t provide the consistent temperatures of refrigerator thawing that keep bacteria growth under control. 

Are you even more pressed for time than that? You can thaw the guest of honor in the microwave, too, but you’ll need to consult the directions that came with the oven to do it correctly. Do plan to begin cooking the bird immediately afterward, again to avoid bacterial growth.

Of course, safety doesn’t end with thawing the turkey. Once you get going in the kitchen, you’ve still got cross contamination to worry about. Cross contamination occurs when contaminated foods come into contact with other foods, thereby ensuring an equitable distribution of pathogens for everyone. Prepare your turkey separately from the other dishes. As you prep the bird, you may find yourself grabbing other items and tools without even thinking about it, possibly spreading contamination as you go. Prepare the turkey and then clean up thoroughly before going on to the other items on your menu.

To stuff or not to stuff. Almost everyone loves stuffing, or dressing depending upon where you’re from, but stuffing the bird can prevent it from cooking thoroughly. Your best bet? Cook the stuffing in a separate pan and use the cavity of the bird to hold a few aromatics that will lend extra flavor. Fill it with chopped onion and herbs, for example, but don’t pack them in. Loose packing will allow heat to circulate evenly inside the bird, ensuring everything cooks properly. If you opt for stuffing the turkey after all, plan on an additional 15 to 30 minutes roasting time, but you run the risk of drying out even more of the meat. 

Eat – and wash – your veggies. Clean all your produce before using it: leafy greens are not an uncommon source of food poisoning, and squashes should be scrubbed before you slice into them. Your knife’s blade can pick up pathogens on the skin and force them into the flesh of the squash when you slice into it (that goes double for any fruit and vegetables you plan to eat raw or just lightly cooked). 

Wash your cutting board, or switch it out, as you go from one dish to the next. Wash your knife, too. Contamination on just one vegetable can spread as quickly to other items as it does from meat to the rest of the meal. At the most basic level, wash your hands frequently, particularly when you move on to the next dish on the menu.