Tips for a Safe, Healthy Thanksgiving (and Great Leftovers)

The holidays are here and with them come wonderful family recipes, many that have been handed down from generation to generation.  The aromas and flavors that tantalize our senses bring us together to celebrate the good things in life.  Best wishes to each of you as you enjoy your family’s traditions.

While counting your blessings, here are a few tips to make sure that you keep your food safe so you can enjoy the leftovers :

STUFFING. If you choose to stuff your turkey, do so immediately prior to roasting.  Do not stuff the turkey the night before as the stuffing will absorb the juices and possibly harbor bacterial growth before it reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees.   A turkey needs to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees at the thickest part of the breast and leg to be done and the juices should run clear.

ROASTING. Do not roast the turkey in a slow oven overnight.  The internal temperature needs to reach 140 degrees quickly to prevent bacterial growth.

HOT AND COLD. Remember to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold during preparation and serving.  Hot foods need to be above 140 degrees and cold foods below 40 degrees.  You can use crock pots and warming trays or chafing dishes to keep foods hot especially if your meal is served buffet-style.  Cold foods are easily iced down by placing a smaller bowl on ice in a larger bowl or by using smaller serving dishes to limit the quantity on the buffet for any length of time.

TWO HOURS MAX. The two hour time rule for foods at room temperature includes the prep time.  Plan your work schedule so that you only get the foods out of the refrigerator as you need them, don’t leave foods sitting at room temperature.  Once the meal is finished, take care of the leftovers before serving dessert.

KEEP IT SMALL. Use smaller serving dishes that can easily be replenished if the time extends more than two hours.  By replacing the bowl, not just refilling it, there’s less risk of food-borne illness.

LEFTOVER STORAGE. When storing your leftovers, remember to use small, shallow containers not more than 3 inches deep.  Arrange them in the refrigerator so that air can circulate around them to cool quickly.  If food is extremely hot (i.e. soups) place the cooking container in the sink in an ice bath and stir to allow it to cool more quickly.  See the Let’s Talk Turkey fact sheet on our web site for recommended storage times for leftovers.

Plan your menus around the leftovers so that you use them in a timely manner and don’t waste the food.  Beyond soups and sandwiches, consider making a simple frittata, quesadillas or a turkey stir-fry to utilize the leftovers.

HOLIDAY CHEER. If you are serving eggnog, remember to use a recipe that cooks the custard or purchase a commercially prepared product.  Don’t serve items with raw eggs unless they have been pasteurized to remove the bacteria.

DON’T FORGET THE PIE. All custard pies, such as pumpkin, need to be refrigerated.  Don’t leave them sit at room temperature.
For a complete list of turkey tips and how long leftovers can be safely kept, follow this link  to our Let’s Talk Turkey fact sheet.

Melinda Hill is an OSU Extension Family & Consumer Sciences educator and may be reached at 330-264-8722 or

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Keith L. Smith, Ph.D., Associate Vice President for Agricultural Administration and Director, Ohio State University Extension TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-1868
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This article originally appeared in Country Life on November 23, 2012.