Cooking a holiday meal can be a joyful yet stressful time. For many, it’s the largest meal they’ve cooked all year. With the added distraction of family and guests, mistakes can occur that can lead to foodborne illness or food poisoning.

Here are several steps that will help you safely plan, prepare, cook and store holiday food.

Plan the Menu – Planning your menu weeks before the holiday will ease tension.

  • Since the turkey is often the main course, consider:
    • Do you have room in your refrigerator or freezer for a turkey? Keep the turkey frozen until you’re ready to thaw it. Thawing food in the refrigerator is the safest method because the turkey will defrost at a consistent, safe temperature. So, clear enough space in your freezer and refrigerator, moving shelves, if necessary.
    • When should you purchase a turkey? It will take 24 hours for every four to five pounds of a turkey to thaw in the refrigerator. For example, you’ll need to buy a 16 to 20 pound turkey four to five days in advance of cooking for it to properly defrost.
    • What size turkey do you need? If you purchase a whole turkey, you need one pound per person. For a boneless breast of turkey, you’ll need ½ pound per person and for a turkey breast, you’ll need ¾ pound per person.

Prepare the Food

  • Wash your hands, not the turkey! Be sure to wash your hands with soap and water before and after preparing food, after touching raw meat, raw eggs and unwashed vegetables, but don’t wash the turkey. Washing raw poultry can cause bacteria to spread up to three feet away.
  • Use the refrigerator or cold-water method to defrost a turkey. Do not thaw your turkey on a counter.
  • Do not store the turkey or other food outside – even when it’s cold. When you run out of room in the refrigerator, the best way to keep holiday food cold is a cooler with ice.
  • Use pasteurized eggs for eggnog, tiramisu, Caesar dressing and other foods made with raw eggs.

Cook the Dinner

  • Use a meat thermometer and check the turkey in three locations: the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing and the thickest part of the breast. Your thermometer should register 165° F in all of these places.
  • Keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Food shouldn’t be left at room temperature for more than two hours.

Store Leftovers

  • Refrigerate or freeze any perishable food within two hours. The temperature in your refrigerator should be set at or below 40°F and your freezer at or below 0°F.
  • You can eat leftovers from a holiday meal for up to four days when stored in the refrigerator.
  • You can eat turkey meat that has been stored in the freezer for up to four months.

If you have questions about your holiday dinner, contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at (888)674-6854. If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the Meat and Poultry Hotline is available from 6 a.m. – noon MST.