Thanksgiving Dinner: Tips and Tricks for a Safe, Waste-Free Holiday

Food is arguably one of the most important parts of the holiday season.

As families begin to come together and spend more time in the kitchen, it is imperative to prioritize food safety and reducing food waste. Before you overindulge in turkey, stuffing, and sweet potato pie, remember that there is an increased risk of food poisoning during the holiday season and with rising prices at the grocery store , many cannot risk throwing away uneaten food.

“We have seen times where food sat out all day and was then refrigerated. This poses a big risk because it was left at room temperature,” said Tera Townsend, food and consumer safety supervisor with the Marion County Health Department. “Especially for people with compromised immune systems that they have to think about, they (sic) are also even more at risk.”

First, it’s important to make sure the workspace or area where cooking will be done is clean and properly sanitized, Townsend said. Be sure to wash your hands and utensils before you begin handling or preparing dishes.

READ MORE: Thanksgiving Dinner: Where to Find a Free Meal or Turkey

Hands and utensils should also be washed between handling raw meat or each time you taste a food or move from one dish to another. Townsend said this helps reduce the risk of spreading bacteria.

Turkeys should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the Centers for Disease Control, raw and undercooked poultry can carry salmonella, which can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Do’s and don’ts

Do NOT rinse the meat, Townsend said. Yes, you read correctly. Do NOT wash or rinse the Thanksgiving turkey before preparing and cooking it, as this can spread bacteria, Townsend said.

“I will say there are some people who are just going to flush it no matter what, so I would specifically like to say not to do that, but for those who will, to clean and disinfect the area around it “,” Townsend said. “If they use a bleach solution to disinfect the area, that helps, but I would still like to say that it should not be rinsed.”

Do NOT put a frozen turkey in a deep fryer. It will explode and cause a fire.

Do NOT thaw a turkey in the sink at room temperature. The safest way to thaw a turkey is to store it in the refrigerator a few days before Thanksgiving. A 20-pound turkey should take about four days to defrost – so start early.

Separate ready-to-eat vegetables and fruits from areas where raw meat is prepared.

Leaving food out

More food products need to be refrigerated than most people realize, Townsend said. Almost all foods that will be saved for later or reheated to be eaten again – such as turkey, macaroni and cheese, green vegetables, stuffing, yams, deviled eggs and fruit pies – should be refrigerated within two hours.

Any food left at room temperature for more than two hours should be thrown out, Townsend said. After two hours, the risk of foodborne illness increases. According to the CDC, Clostridium perfringens is the bacteria that grows in cooked foods left at room temperature. It is the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning and outbreaks occur most often in November and December.

“The advice is to refrigerate within two hours — that’s all you’ll want to refrigerate and reuse,” Townsend said. “A way to keep it safe if they want to leave it out is to maybe keep the hot food hot in slow cookers or Sternos, if they pay attention to that, or if they have the cold food on ice. They should not be taken out at room temperature.

Leftovers and food waste

Leftovers should be kept no longer than three to four days in the refrigerator, Townsend said. However, there isn’t really a hard and fast rule for how long frozen leftovers should last. Generally, if something starts to burn in the freezer, it’s time to throw it away, Townsend said.

Second Helpings volunteers and employees preparing meals for the local community. (Photo provided/Second serving)

Leftovers often trip people up, said Linda Broadfoot, CEO of Second Helpings, a nonprofit that works to reduce food waste and fight hunger in Indianapolis. Especially around the holidays, people are often guilty of overpreparing or preparing too much food and then throwing away leftovers that could have been eaten or donated, Broadfoot said.

“I know too many people who say leftovers are bad,” Broadfoot said. “I say if you’re having trouble preparing a big meal, you know, prepare enough that you can eat it and commit to eating it several times to save yourself the work.”
When people don’t store leftovers for too long, they throw them away too soon, and Broadfoot said people often throw away food before it goes bad because the way foods are dated and labeled can be confusing .

“I’m not a food scientist, but I would say be aware of what that actually means,” Broadfoot said. “Usually ‘sell by’ and ‘best before’ don’t mean the food is bad, right? So I think people end up throwing away a lot of good food because the dates trip them up.

With prices rising in stores, reducing the amount of food going to landfills starts at checkout. It’s important to try to purchase only the right amount of food items needed for Thanksgiving to avoid unnecessary overstocking, Broadfoot said.

Any unopened or unused dry and nonperishable goods can still be donated to Second Helpings, open six days a week, or other food pantries around Indianapolis.

“If these are things you’ve already done, share them with your neighbors, share them with your friends,” Broadfoot said. “Before you throw it away, make sure you have someone you know who doesn’t need it nearby.”

Contact editor Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.

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