Thanksgiving is meant to be a time of gratitude and family togetherness, not upset stomachs, cramps, and diarrhea. But these and other symptoms of food poisoning can be caused by Salmonella, Norovirus, E. coli, and other pathogens that lurk in our food. Every year, about 1 in 6 Americans—48 million people—come down with food poisoning, according to the CDC. In order to prevent you from being one of them, here are some simple tips for reducing the risk of contracting a foodborne illness, because no one wants to spend Black Friday on the couch clutching the Pepto-Bismol. (If stomach symptoms do strike, here's our handy guide for how to tell if it's food poisoning or something else.)
1. To prevent food poisoning, keep your raw meat away from everything else.
It's easy for raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs to spread germs to foods you might not cook before eating, like greens or bread. That's why it's best to separate the raw animal products from everything else in your shopping cart and in your food prep area, including using different cutting boards or plates. You also want to separate those raw animal products in the fridge, and possibly keep them on the bottom shelf to avoid drips further down. When it comes to turkey, keep it on a tray or pan to catch any juices that might leak. That's an especially good idea this year, amid a salmonella outbreak involving 35 states.
2. Minimize germs by washing your hands and work area (with soap).
Pesky germs love to linger on hands, utensils, counters, and cutting surfaces. Before you start cooking, making sure everything is clean, and wash up throughly with soap and hot water. The CDC advises washing hands "for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food and before eating." In case you don't have a timer handy, that's the length of humming Happy Birthday twice.
3. Wash your produce too.
Produce is a common carrier of norovirus and E. coli, among other nasties. (Romaine lettuce seems especially vulnerable to the latter; as of November 2018, a new outbreak has the CDC warning people not to eat it at all). But you can reduce your risk somewhat by rinsing your fruits and vegetables in plain tap water. According to an expert USA Today spoke to, rinsing removes 90 percent of the pathogens food attracts during growing and shipping. The best method is to rub while rinsing, then dry with a (clean, obviously) towel. For food with hard skins or rinds, like potatoes, peeling is even more effective than rinsing.
The exception is bagged greens advertised as pre-washed: The bacteria in your kitchen is likely to mean that rinsing will do more harm than good.
However, don't rinse your meat or poultry—you'll probably just splash the bacteria around.
4. Thaw your meat correctly.
Don't buy your turkey until a day or two before you plan to cook it, then keep it frozen and in its original wrapper until ready to thaw it. (If your turkey is pre-stuffed, don't thaw it at all; cook from the package directions.) According to the USDA, there's only three safe ways to thaw: In the fridge, in cold water, or in a microwave. Keep in mind that larger birds can take a considerable amount of time to thaw in the refrigerator, so plan ahead accordingly. (The USDA has a handy timetable for how long birds of various sizes need to thaw.) If you're short on time, cold water is the best option. Figure 30 minutes for every pound of bird, and change the water every 30 minutes.
If properly thawed in the fridge, you can re-freeze your turkey if necessary, but don't refreeze if after using the other methods. And never thaw food by just leaving it to sit out on the counter—bacteria will start to multiple in a flash once parts of the grub reach room temperature.
5. Cook thoroughly.
It's important to get food hot enough, for long enough, that germs can be killed. When it's time to roast the turkey, you shouldn't be setting your oven temperature any lower than 325°F. Make sure the bird has been cooked through by using a food thermometer to check the thickest part of the breast and innermost part of the thigh or wing; the thermometer should read at least 165°F. The same temperature is good for any kind of whole poultry, breasts, or thighs, as well as ground chicken or turkey and casseroles. Stuffing, too. Fresh ham or fish can be a little cooler—145°F.
Keep in mind that an unstuffed 8-pound turkey will take anywhere from 1.5 to 3.25 hours to cook thoroughly, and an 8-12 pounder from 2.75 to 3 hours, so it's important to plan ahead. Don't assume you can check for doneness just by looking—even done meat can be pink.
And whatever you do, don't use an oral thermometer. Humans run at lower temps than roasted fowl, and regular oral thermometers can break in the high heat, adding glass and mercury to your entrees. Maybe not food poisoning, but not good.
6. Give your proteins a rest.
Resting can help meat juices to set and make carving easier. For some foods, particularly steak, fresh pork, or fresh ham, it can also help kill germs, as the temperatures remain at a constant or continue to rise. Other foods, like fish, don't need to rest at all.
7. Skip the stuffing. (Or bake it outside the bird.)
Sorry, Thanksgiving purists: Cooking stuffing inside a turkey isn't recommended—that bready mush is porous and thus perfect for soaking up salmonella-laden juices. According to author and TV personality Alton Brown, getting the stuffing to 165°F usually means overcooking the rest of the bird. "The way I see it, cooking stuffing inside a turkey turns the turkey into a rather costly seal-a-meal bag," he writes in his book Good Eats." If you're a stuffing fan, I suggest cooking it separately (in which case it's 'dressing,' not stuffing) and inserting it into the bird while it rests."
8. While you're at it, skip the oysters too.
Some foods are riskier than others when it comes to food poisoning. If it's raw or rare, especially if it's an animal product, chances are it has some unwanted baggage. Raw oysters, in particular, are breeding grounds for bacteria because they're filter feeders, which means they suck up a lot of viruses and bacteria. Cook all seafood to 145°F, and warm up any leftovers to 165°F.
9. Don't keep food hanging around.
Bacteria thrive between 40°F and 140°F—which means the average indoor house temperature is a perfect breeding zone. That's also why you don't want to leave food sitting out for more than two hours, and only one hour if it's above 90°F outside. Keep your fridge nice and cool, too—ideally below 40°F. And don't let leftovers linger even in the fridge—three or four days, max.