Many Americans are once again planning for holidays that look more like they did before the pandemic, but the continuing COVID-19 pandemic coupled with rising costs can make for a stressful holiday season. Don’t let this stress distract you from keeping your family safe from foodborne illnesses. 

According to a survey from researchers at Ohio State University, about half of Americans will ask their guests to wear masks in their house during the holidays, compared to 67 percent a year ago. Nearly three-fourths said they will likely celebrate with members of their household only.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) COVID Data Tracker shows that 58.8 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 68 percent have received at least one dose of vaccine and 15 percent of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster dose.

Image from the American Farm Bureau Federation

Another stressor for American consumers this year is rising costs. The Farm Bureau’s 36th annual survey indicates the average cost of this year’s classic Thanksgiving feast for 10 has increased to $53.31 which is less than $6 per person, which is a 14 percent increase from last year’s average. 

Click on pie graphic to enlarge.

Although Thanksgiving in 2021 might have unique added stressors, it still has the usual worries. And it’s easy to let the stress of current events and the holidays get to us and cause us to forget the basics in the kitchen that keep our family and friends safe.

By following the tips below, you’ll lessen the chances of foodborne illness this Thanksgiving.

Clean and sanitize

Always wash your hands before preparing and handling food. Handwashing helps to prevent the spread of germs

Clean and sanitize any surfaces that will touch food such as tabletops, kitchen counters, stoves, sinks, etc.

Avoid cross-contamination

USDA studies have found that 60 percent of kitchen sinks were contaminated with germs after participants washed or rinsed poultry. USDA advises against washing your turkey. However, if you do wash your turkey in the sink, the sink and surrounding areas must be fully cleaned and sanitized afterward. To clean, rub down surfaces — including the sink, cutting boards and countertops — with soap and hot water, and then sanitize them with a cleaning solution to remove any residual germs. You can use a homemade solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in one gallon of water. Let the surfaces air dry. Be sure to use separate cutting boards — one for meat and another for vegetables and fruit.

Thaw the turkey safely

Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter, at room temperature or in hot water. They must not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. There are safe ways to thaw a turkey and other food, including in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave.

Even though the center of the food may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the food can easily be in the “Danger Zone,” between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F. The danger zone allows bacteria to multiply rapidly.

Remove the giblets from the turkey cavities after thawing and cook them separately.

Refrigerator thawing for turkey and other foods

In the refrigerator at 40 degrees F or below

Allow approximately 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds

4 to 12 pounds 1 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
  • Planning ahead is the key because a large frozen turkey requires at least 24 hours for every 5 pounds.
  • Small amounts of frozen food — such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts — require a full day to thaw.
  • After thawing in the refrigerator, items such as ground meat, stew meat, poultry and seafood, should remain safe and good quality for an additional day or two in the refrigerator before cooking.
  • Red meat cuts such as beef, pork or lamb roasts, chops and steaks should remain safe and good quality for 3 to 5 days.
  • Food thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking, although there may be some loss of quality.

Cold water thawing

In cold water

Allow approximately 30 minutes per pound

4 to 12 pounds 2 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
  • This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention.
  • The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Also, the meat tissue may absorb water, resulting in a watery product.
  • The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, with the water being changed every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw.
  • Small packages of meat, poultry or seafood — about a pound — may thaw in 1 hour or less.
  • A 3-to 4-pound package may take 2 to 3 hours. For whole turkeys, estimate about 30 minutes per pound.
  • Once thawed food must be cooked immediately. Foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.

Microwave thawing

  • After thawing in the microwave, always cook immediately, whether microwave cooking, by a conventional oven, or grilling.
  • Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn’t have been destroyed in the microwave and the food may have reached optimal temperatures for bacteria to grow.
  • Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked before refreezing.
  • Never thaw foods in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher or plastic garbage bag; out on the kitchen counter, outdoors or on the porch. These methods can leave your foods unsafe to eat.

Cooking without thawing

  • It is safe to cook foods from a frozen state.
  • The cooking will take approximately 50 percent longer than the recommended time for fully thawed or fresh meat and poultry.

Thoroughly cook your turkey

  • Use a meat thermometer to determine when the turkey is done. The turkey is done when the thermometer reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the turkey thigh. Be aware dark meat takes longer to cook than any other part.
  • Basting the turkey while it is cooking is not necessary. Basting tools could be sources of bacterial contamination if dipped into uncooked or undercooked poultry juices and then allowed to sit at room temperature for later basting.
  • Do not cook a turkey overnight in an oven set at a low temperature. Cooking a turkey at a temperature below 325 degrees Fahrenheit allows harmful bacteria to multiply.
  • If you purchase a fully cooked turkey, pick it up hot and take it home to eat immediately.

Stuffing your turkey

USDA does not recommend stuffing your turkey because it can be a breeding ground for bacteria if not prepared carefully. However, if you plan to stuff your turkey, please keep the following in mind:

  • The wet and dry ingredients for the stuffing should be prepared separately from each other and refrigerated until ready to use.
  • Stuff the turkey loosely — about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound of turkey.
  • Immediately place the stuffed, raw turkey in an oven set no lower than 325 F.
  • A stuffed turkey will take longer to cook. Once it has finished cooking, place a food thermometer in the leg as well as in the center of the stuffing to ensure it has reached a safe internal temperature of 165 F.
  • Let the cooked turkey stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing.

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