Keep Risky Habits Out of the Kitchen this Thanksgiving


WASHINGTON, November 2023 – America’s biggest food holiday is almost here, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants to remind consumers to avoid habits that increase the risk of harmful bacteria in their Thanksgiving meal.

“Unsafe handling and undercooking your turkey can cause foodborne illness,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Emilio Esteban. “To ensure your Thanksgiving meal is wholesome and memorable without the illness, follow the four steps to food safety: clean, separate, cook and chill, and avoid risky food handling habits that go against USDA guidelines.”

Here are seven dangerous habits USDA would like consumers to drop:

#1 Not washing your hands or kitchen surfaces before, during, and after food prep: Handwashing is the first step to avoiding foodborne illness. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after handling food.

  • Clean and sanitize any surfaces that have touched raw turkey and its juices and will later touch food, such as kitchen counters, sinks, stoves, tabletops, etc. Cleaning with soap and water physically removes the germs, and sanitizing kills any remaining. Many different sanitizers can be used: an easy homemade version is to make a solution of one tablespoon of liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water, or you can use a commercial sanitizer or sanitizing wipe.
  • Thorough handwashing remains a concern for the USDA. The most recent USDA study shows that 87% of participants self-reported that they washed their hands before starting to cook in the test kitchen. However, only 44% of participants were observed doing so before meal preparation. Additionally, handwashing was not attempted 83% of the time when it should have been done (after handling raw meat or touching contaminated surfaces). Throughout the study, 96% of handwashing attempts did not contain all necessary steps.

#2 Using the same cutting boards and utensils for raw and ready-to-eat foods: Cross-contamination is the spread of bacteria from raw meat and poultry onto ready-to-eat food, surfaces, and utensils. Avoid this by using separate cutting boards — one for raw meat and poultry and another for ready-to-eat foods like fruits and vegetables that will be served raw.

#3 Defrosting your turkey on the kitchen counter: Leaving any frozen package of meat or poultry for more than two hours on the counter at room temperature is dangerous. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen, the outer layer of the food is in the “Danger Zone” between 40 and 140 F — a temperature where foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly. You can safely thaw a turkey using the following methods:

  • Refrigerator Thawing: When thawing in a fridge, allow roughly 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey. After thawing, a turkey is safe in a refrigerator for one to two days.
  • Cold Water Thawing: When thawing in a cold-water bath, allow 30 minutes per pound and submerge the turkey in its original wrapping to avoid cross-contamination. Change the water every half hour until the turkey is thawed. Cook it immediately after thawing.

#4 Cooking your turkey overnight at a low temperature: It is not safe to cook any meat or poultry in an oven set lower than 325 F. At lower temperatures, the meat stays in the Danger Zone for too long. Cook your turkey at 325 F or above and ensure all parts of the turkey reach a safe internal temperature of 165 F.

#5 Relying only on a pop-up temperature indicator: While the pop-up timers found in many turkeys tend to be fairly accurate, they only check the internal temperature in one spot when we recommend three. Always use a food thermometer to ensure your turkey has reached a safe internal temperature of 165 F in the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing, and the innermost part of the thigh to check its internal temperature.

#6 Stuffing your turkey the night before: USDA recommends against stuffing your turkey since this often leads to bacteria growth. If you plan to stuff your turkey, follow these steps:

  • Prepare the wet and dry ingredients for the stuffing separately from each other and refrigerate until ready to use. Mixing the dry and wet ingredients produces an environment in which bacteria can thrive for hours before being placed in the oven. Mix wet and dry ingredients just before filling the cavity of the turkey.
  • Stuff the turkey loosely — about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound.
  • Never stuff a whole turkey and store it in the refrigerator before cooking. Immediately place the stuffed, raw turkey in an oven set no lower than 325 F.
  • A stuffed turkey will take 50% longer to cook. Once it has finished cooking, place a food thermometer in the center of the stuffing to ensure it has reached a safe internal temperature of 165 F.

#7 Keeping leftovers for more than a week: Store leftovers in small shallow containers and put them in the refrigerator. Thanksgiving leftovers are safe to eat for up to four days when stored in the refrigerator. In the freezer, leftovers are safely frozen indefinitely but will keep the best quality for two to six months.

For more food safety information, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), email [email protected] or chat live at from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday. On Thanksgiving Day, the Hotline will be open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time.