University of Maryland Extension

Gobble up some Food Safety Tips in Time for Thanksgiving

Image Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg

With the pressure on to prepare the perfect Thanksgiving meal, simple food safety measures often get left on the backburner. However, serving up a side dish of prevention could go a long way toward keeping your family feast – and any accompanying leftovers – healthy this holiday.

“Unfortunately, no one is foodborne illness proof,” says Lorraine Harley, a family and consumer science educator with University of Maryland Extension (UME).

On the subject of food safety, you could say Lorraine has developed a recipe for success. She created a course called “Food Safety is for Everyone” which she has marketed to educators all around the country from Florida to Washington, Maine, Texas and everywhere in between.

“Things have changed quite a bit in food safety over the years. It’s not your grandma’s kitchen anymore,” says Lorraine.

Foodborne illnesses, which claim more than 3,000 lives annually in the United States, threaten to dampen the spirit of the holidays by sneaking in among the hustle and bustle.

“We are a ‘right now’ society. We don’t want to wait until the food is cooked thoroughly, we don’t want to wait to wash our hands thoroughly. We want to eat right now with our families,” says Lorraine.

But a few simple steps can help ensure your holiday get-together goes down in history as a happy memory, rather than a horrific one.


Let’s hope we all know by now that the most important element in food safety is washing your hands. The following precautions won’t amount to much if you don’t take that crucial first step. “If you remember nothing else this holiday season, remember to wash your hands often and thoroughly,” Lorraine says. If you don’t know how to properly wash your hands, please do yourself and everyone around you a favor by clicking here.


The refrigerator is another important line of defense in stopping bacteria that can cause foodborne illness from thriving. Bacteria grows between 40 and 140 degrees Farenheit, so keeping food below 40 degrees before you cook it is one of the most important food safety rules to follow.

During the holidays, the refrigerator door gets quite a workout which can raise the appliance’s internal temperature. “Even if you’re only having a few people over, you tend to come home with the entire grocery store anyway and cram it inside your fridge,” Lorraine says. That’s why she advises dialing down the temperature inside your refrigerator to compensate for the crowded conditions and constant closing and opening.  


Gone are the days when people haphazardly left frozen raw meat out beside the sink to defrost. According to Lorraine, there are only three safe ways to defrost.

1: Take the meat from the freezer to the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to thaw completely.

2: Put the meat inside a pot of cool water and change out the water every 20 minutes until completely thawed.

3: Use the defrost setting on the microwave in a pinch.

Don’t need to cook that meat after all once you’ve thawed it? Is it safe to put it back in the freezer? Only if you thawed it in the refrigerator where it stayed in the safe zone below 40 degrees, Lorraine says.


Cutting boards can be a breeding ground for bacteria and one of the most common causes of cross contamination. That’s why Lorraine says to use two separate cooking boards – one for meats and one for vegetables/fruits. Clean the cutting boards with warm soapy water in between different ingredients.


All your hard work to keep food safe and cool inside the refrigerator will go to waste if you don’t bother to cook it thoroughly. The only way to tell whether that stuffed turkey is truly cooked safely, Lorraine says, is to use a meat thermometer.

“I know a lot of us grew up without ever using meat thermometers,” she says. “But we just need to be more diligent.”

Your Thanksgiving bird will be ready to eat once the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. The same is true for all other poultry. Click here for safe minimum cooking temperatures for all other meats.


“During the holidays we love to put out beautiful tables full of food. But Aunt Harriet is always late and so is Uncle Jim,” warns Lorraine. That’s when what she calls the two-hour rule becomes really important.

No food should be left out longer than two hours unless you have a heating element to keep it at 140 degrees or above or ice to keep it at 40 degrees or below. Also remember that ice used to cool food is not fit for human consumption. Keep a separate bag or container of ice for beverages.


Leftovers are often the part of the Thanksgiving holiday people look forward to the most but Lorraine stresses the importance of getting them into the fridge within that two-hour window to keep them tasty and healthy. Also, try to get your fill of those turkey sandwiches in the first few days after Thanksgiving. It’s not a good idea to keep any leftovers in the fridge for longer than four days unless you plan to freeze them.  For information on how long it is safe to keep any item in your refrigerator or freezer, opened or unopened, visit

Finally, Lorraine says, just being mindful of food safety is likely enough to keep you from running into trouble this holiday season.

“These methods are simple but they have changed over the years,” she says. “Foodborne illness is prevalent but it doesn’t have to be. It’s entirely preventable if you know what to do.”

Best wishes for a happy and healthy Thanksgiving from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources!

Contact Sara Gavin at 301-405-9235 or

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