Published on 11/21/13

Don't let foodborne illness take the happy out of your holiday gatherings

By Savannah Colbert

Preparing a great holiday meal for your friends and family is a great way to share the spirit of the season and make new memories. Unfortunately, far too often during this time of year, many families end up sharing a foodborne illness in addition to that turkey and dressing.

UGA Extension food safety experts offer these tips on food safety along with those provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Plan Ahead:

  • Don’t thaw a turkey at room temperature; the surface will begin to grow bacteria while the inside is still frozen.
  • If possible, thaw the turkey in the fridge three to four days before cooking.
  • If you don’t have that much time, thaw it in cold water.
  • Prepare your salad at a completely separate time from working with raw meat.” Be sure to wash, rinse and sanitize any surfaces or utensils that the raw meat came in contact with when you are done with that task.
  • If your food won’t be eaten within two hours of cooking, store it in the fridge and reheat it later.


  • Don’t wash raw turkeys in the sink. Splashing water sprays harmful bacteria onto countertops. Turkeys are washed at the plant before you buy them.
  • Use separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils for raw meats. Bacteria remains on anything that raw meat has touched.
  • Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling food.
  • Clean your countertops before starting as well as after; sanitize them after any preparation steps involving raw meat, or better yet, after all food preparation.


  • Use a thermometer when cooking meats. Even the best cooks can’t tell when something is done just by looking at it.
  • Take the turkey’s temperature in the thickest part of the breast.
  • The minimum internal temperature for turkeys is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Put your food in the fridge after your meal. Waiting until it has cooled to store it was important when the hot food would melt all the ice in iceboxes. This isn’t a problem with electric refrigerators.
  • Use small or shallow containers when refrigerating or freezing leftovers so that they will cool quickly.


  • Store leftovers in small portions so they can cool faster.
  • Many leftovers will keep 5 to 7 days in the refrigerator; use leftover refrigerated turkey, gravy or stuffing within 3 to 4 days.
  • Raw food usually lasts three days in the fridge. S
  • Store leftovers in the freezer for several weeks or use a vacuum sealer to store them in the freezer for months.

Savannah Colbert is a communications intern with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.