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Avoid Food-Borne Illness This Thanksgiving With These 4 Tips


I know this blog is called Weight-Loss Coach, but as an RD I couldn't let Thanksgiving go by without posting about food poisoning because it's so important and highly preventable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 76 million cases of foodborne-illness each year in the United States, and Thanksgiving is one of the riskiest days of the year. Food poisoning is most dangerous for pregnant women, small children,  older adults, people with chronic diseases (such as heart disease or  diabetes), those who have recently had surgery or are recovering from an injury, and anyone with a weak immune system. Most likely your gathering will include at least one person in this group, but the good news is you can stop risky germs in their tracks.

Here are the four most important food safety mistakes to avoid:

Don't Breed Bacteria Before You Cook the Turkey: If you purchased a frozen turkey, plan for 30 minutes per pound to defrost it, and always, always, always defrost in the refrigerator and never on the countertop or in the sink. The bacteria in raw turkey grows very rapidly between the temperatures of 40 and 140 Fahrenheit (F), so thawing at room temperature is a guaranteed risk. According to a survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association, nearly one in three Americans (31 percent) typically thaws frozen meat on the kitchen counter, under hot water in the kitchen sink, or in the oven— all big food safety no-nos.

Don't Undercook the Bird: If you're serving turkey, the estimated time needed to roast it is 15 to 18 minutes per pound (unstuffed). So, a 20-pound turkey will take at least 5 hours to roast. It's important to cook your turkey to an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit (F) to kill all of the bacteria. The only way to really know if a turkey is at the right temperature is to use a meat thermometer (insert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the muscle away from the bone). According to the ADA survey, nearly three out of four Americans say they don't know the proper temperature to which a whole turkey should be cooked - and more than half don't consistently use a meat thermometer to ensure doneness. Instead, 40 percent wait for meat to "look done" or for "the juices to run clear," while a small percentage (5 percent) use unconventional methods such as wiggling turkey legs, poking meat with a fork or even conducting a taste-test (none of these are accurate). The only way to know if your turkey is safe to eat is to use a meat thermometer.

Don't Contaminate Your Leftovers: You don't want to have perishable foods out on the counter top or table for over two hours. Again, bacteria grow rapidly at room temperature, which means if you let that food sit out and continue to pick at left-out leftovers, you may get a mouthful of bacteria (which you can't see, smell, or taste). Believe it or not, bacteria can double within a 20-minute period. When packing up leftovers, place them in shallow sealable containers so they can cool down quickly in the fridge to get below 40 F. And don't pack your fridge too full. This can block air circulation and increase the temperature. Also, check to be sure that the temperature inside your fridge is 40 degrees F or below (look at the refrigerator thermometer to be sure). Even at 45 degrees, bacteria grow, grow, grow. 

Don't Forget to Wash Your Hands: The single most important thing you can do to stay safe on Thanksgiving is to wash your hands before and after handling any food, especially after using the bathroom, changing diapers, touching your nose, face or hair, or handling pets. Just taking the time to wash your hands the right way can cut the risk by about 50 percent. That means warm, soapy water, long enough to sing two choruses of "Happy Birthday" while you lather (about 20 seconds). Always wash your hands front and back and up to your wrists, between fingers and under fingernails. Dry your hands with disposable paper towels or a new, clean towel (not the dirty towel other people have been using to wipe their hands or dry dishes).

Are you guilty of any of the above risky habits? Have you ever had food poisoning? Please share your thoughts or questions here or tweet them to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine!



Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.



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