Published on 11/25/96

Taking Thanksgiving Dinner Traveling? Take Care

"Dinner on the grounds," a treasured tradition in rural churches, still delights many Georgians. It carries over into large family gatherings and many other holiday settings.

These feasts can offer the best of the fall holidays. People tend to bring only their best foods to share with their families and friends.

But if you're not careful, these meals can lead to some of the holidays' worst, too.

"Bacteria are everywhere. But a few types especially like to crash parties," said Judy Harrison, a foods specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

Some of the culprits, she said, are Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Listeria monocytogenes. If they lurk in your food, you won't be able to tell it.

"You can't smell or taste these bacteria in food," Harrison said. "The only way to keep them from ruining your party is to make a point of preparing and handling food safely."

That means washing your hands before and after handling food. It means keeping your kitchen, dishes and utensils clean, too. And always serve food on clean plates.

On the buffet table, keep hot foods hot (140 degrees or warmer) with chafing dishes, crock pots or warming trays. Keep cold foods 40 degrees or colder by nesting dishes in bowls of ice. Or use small serving bowls and replace them often.

Keep track of how long foods have been on the buffet table. The two-hour rule is important. "Never let foods sit at room temperature more than two hours," Harrison said.

If you're taking the turkey, be especially careful.

"To transport an unstuffed cooked turkey," Harrison said, "take it out of the oven, immediately wrap it in foil and put it straight into the cooler. Then put it into the warmest spot in the car."

What about a cooked stuffed turkey? "Don't try to transport it stuffed," she said. "Remove the stuffing immediately after cooking and transport it in a dish, not in the turkey."

Don't partially cook a turkey ahead of time and then finish it before the meal, either. It can't be safely done.

You can cook the turkey a day ahead, Harrison said, but not if want to take it whole. You can't safely cool and then reheat a whole cooked turkey. If you must cook a day ahead, go ahead and carve it.

Be sure you cook the turkey in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees. Cook it until a meat thermometer placed in the thigh reaches 180 degrees. Then let it stand 20 minutes.

If it's stuffed, remove the stuffing and cool it quickly in small, shallow dishes. Carve all the meat from the turkey, leaving legs, thighs and wings if you wish.

Divide the carved meat and turkey parts into small, shallow containers.

That will allow the turkey to cool fast and evenly and reheat quickly at meal time.

When you travel, pack the turkey and other perishable foods in a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs. When you get where you're going, refrigerate the foods quickly.

Reheat the foods in a 325-degree oven or a microwave to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, or until they're steaming hot.

After the meal, throw out any foods that sat for more than two hours on the buffet table, Harrison said. Other leftovers are safe in the refrigerator for four days.

They're safe indefinitely in the freezer, she said. But most will taste best if eaten within four months. To be safe, thoroughly reheat leftovers to 165 degrees.

If you have to travel an especially long way, Harrison said, maybe it's best to reconsider.

"Sometimes it's safer just to give up on the idea of taking your feast across the country," she said. "Look for new traditions when you get there."

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.