You may have already started planning your holiday season cooking for friends and family. But have you thought about ways to minimize harmful germs that can get into food? Poor knowledge of safe food preparation, serving, and storage can result in food borne illness. Each year about 48 million people get sick from food contaminated by germs and 3,000 people die. Young children, older adults, and those with health issues are particularly at risk.


Safe Thawing

To thaw food safely, you need to plan ahead. Don’t leave your frozen turkey on the counter overnight or try to thaw it in a sink of hot water. “Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter or in hot water and must not be left at room temperature for more than two hours,“ cautions the USDA.  Bacteria begins to grow when food temperature rises above about 40° F. The danger zone of rapid bacteria growth is between 40° F to 140° F. The USDA recommends thawing food in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave.

  • Refrigerator thawing. Smaller quantities of frozen foods, such as a pound of hamburger meat, take at least a day to thaw in the refrigerator. A general guide is to allow 24 hours of thawing time in the refrigerator for every 5 pounds of weight. So, if you have a 15-pound turkey, you need to allow 3 days for it to thaw in the refrigerator. Once thawed, the meat will remain safe in the refrigerator for a day or two before cooking.
  • Cold water thawing. This method is faster but requires more attention. The food to be thawed must be in a leak-proof container to avoid transfer of bacteria. Submerge the bag in cold (not hot or lukewarm) water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Estimate 30 minutes per pound for a whole turkey. As soon as the meat is thawed, you must cook it right away.
  • Microwave thawing. You may also thaw food using the microwave’s defrost setting. Be aware that the food will not thaw evenly, and some parts of it may begin to cook. Food thawed in the microwave must be cooked immediately because portions of the food will be in the danger zone.


If you don’t have time for any of these 3 thawing methods, you may safely cook frozen food. It will take about 50% longer than normal recommended times.


Safe Food Preparation

Avoid contaminating the food you are preparing with germs. Here are a few basics of safe food preparation:

  • Don’t cook when you are sick. Keep sick people away from food preparation areas.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before beginning to cook or if you do anything that reintroduces germs on your hands (such as going out to the garage to get the roasting pan, turning the thawing turkey over in a sink of water, or petting the dog).
  • Sanitize your cooking surfaces before starting food preparation and after preparing meat. Wipe with a simple disinfecting solution, such as 1 teaspoon of bleach to 1 quart of water.
  • Use clean dish cloths or sponges and replace frequently.
  • Use a separate cutting board for vegetables and meats. For example, don’t cut up raw chicken on a wooden cutting board, wipe it off, then chop vegetables for the salad.
  • Be careful to avoid cross contamination. For example, don’t dry your hands on a dish towel and use the same towel to dry the dishes. If you wipe up chicken juices off the counter with a dish cloth, don’t use that dish cloth to wipe or wash anything else. Use paper towels to help avoid cross contamination when cleaning up meat juices.
  • Store meats in the refrigerator on the bottom shelf and other food on the shelves above. You don’t want chicken juices dripping into the lettuce that you’ll use in the salad.
  • Use a food thermometer to make sure meat is cooked to a safe internal temperature. It is hard to tell by just looking. Turkey and chicken should be cooked to 165° F. Go to for safe minimum cooking temperature charts.

Safe Food Serving

Once food is cooked, you want to keep the food temperature out of the danger zone— below 40° F or above 140° F. The FDA encourages us to remember the Two-Hour Rule: Discard any perishable food that is left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours, unless you’re keeping it hot (above 140° F) or cold (below 40° F). If the temperature where you are serving is above 90° F, then discard food in the danger zone after 1 hour.

Safe Food Storage

Refrigerated leftovers don’t keep forever. Cooked chicken and turkey are only safe to eat for 3 to 4 days. Go to for cold food storage charts.


Pro Tips

#1 Thawing

Don’t thaw frozen food in your garage, basement, car, dishwasher, on your porch or patio, or in a plastic garbage bag. The USDA cautions that food thawed in these ways is unsafe to eat.


#2 The Two-Hour Rule

Discard perishable food that is left out at room temperature for more than two hours that hasn’t been kept hot (above 140° F) or cold (below 40° F).


Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.

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