Did you know that one in six persons get food poisoning in the United States each year? Chances are you will not hear on the news that Grandma’s turkey and dressing caused her family to become sick, but according to University of Tennessee Extension’s Janie Burney, a nutrition specialist, holiday food poisoning does happen.

“Diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps are not good ways to remember your time with family and the great food,” Burney said. “However, if the chef follows a few simple steps, everyone can enjoy a safe and tasty holiday turkey.”

Here are Burney’s recommendations:

1. Start early if cooking a frozen turkey. A whole, frozen turkey should thaw in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave oven. Allow about 24 hours for each four to five pounds of bird stored in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees or below. That can be as much as five or six days depending on the turkey’s size. Thaw in a container or pan to prevent the juices from dripping onto other foods. For cold water thawing, allow 30 minutes per pound. For the microwave oven, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Plan to cook it immediately after thawing.

2. Wash your hands and anything that has come in contact with the turkey in hot water and soap.

3. Set the oven temperature no lower than 325 degrees and be sure the turkey is thawed. Cook your turkey to 165 degrees and use a thermometer to check. Insert the thermometer into the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

4. Chill your leftovers right away. Anything you do not plan to eat within two hours should be stored in the refrigerator. Leftovers will be good for three to four days. Or, you may freeze leftovers for up to six months for best quality. Always reheat leftovers to 165 degrees. 

5. Gravy should boil. Should you stuff your turkey? Burney has these suggestions: “Cooking the stuffing and turkey separately is less risky than stuffing the turkey. If you do cook them together, stuff the turkey loosely.” As with an unstuffed turkey, Burney said chefs should be sure the temperature of a stuffed turkey reaches 165 degrees in the turkey and the center of the dressing. 

“Don’t forget to let the cooked turkey stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving. This time allows the turkey and stuffing to remain at 165 degrees or more for enough time to kill harmful bacteria,” Burney said.

For more information about food safety, call the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline: 1-888-674-6854 1-888-MPHotline from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday or send an email to

Shelly Barnes is the family and consumer sciences Extension agent for UT Extension in Wilson County. She may be reached at or (615) 444-9584.

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