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Playing it safe

  • Photo courtesy of SHNS Once Thanksgiving dinner is over, be sure to refrigerate your turkey, stuffing and gravy. Discard anything left out more than two hours.
    Photo courtesy of SHNS Once Thanksgiving dinner is over, be sure to refrigerate your turkey, stuffing and gravy. Discard anything left out more than two hours.
Published November 16. 2011 05:01PM

Nancy Matyas, clinical manager of Nutrition Services for Blue Mountain Health System, will never forget the case of food poisoning she got from mussels at a buffet.

"They were really good, and I was eating a lot of them. The next thing I know, I'm home and sweating and not feeling good at all," she said.

Matyas doesn't want anyone else to suffer from food-borne illness, and so recently shared advice with those who will prepare the upcoming holiday meals.

"Thanksgiving is a great time to spend with your family, and you want to provide food that's safe and nutritious," Matyas said.

The first rule is to wash your hands, countertops and utensils frequently with soap and water.

Talking turkey:

Most people buy frozen turkeys for the big holiday meal, and she advises cooks to plan ahead days ahead.

"You don't want to defrost it in your sink with water. The best way is in your refrigerator over an extended period of time," she said.

That will take 24 hours for every four or five pounds of frozen turkey, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture. So, count on waiting about five days for a 16-20 pound bird to thaw.

Always remove the giblets from the cavity as soon as the turkey is thawed.

On roasting day, sanitize the sink and counters, and be sure to wash the bird with salt water, Matyas said. She suggests using disposable plastic gloves while handling the raw turkey.

"Once you put the turkey into the pan, you'll want to sanitize the counter top again," she said.

That step prevents cross-contamination to other foods the cook will be preparing on those surfaces.

Although the federal government recommends baking the stuffing outside the turkey, many cooks follow the tradition of roasting the bird with the stuffing inside.

"Once you have cooked the turkey, take the stuffing out," Matyas said. "You don't want to put it into the fridge stuffed."

Many cooks use a meat thermometer to make sure the turkey has reached a safe temperature (165 degrees).

But before you use that thermometer that has been jostled around in the kitchen drawer all year, Matyas said, be sure to test it first.

She advises bringing a pot of water to a boil and dunking the end of the thermometer into it. If the device registers 212 degrees, the thermometer works.

For more information on cooking a turkey, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 or access it online at

Matyas also suggested a call to the Butterball Hotline (1-800-BUTTERBALL).

While most people are aware of the need to handle poultry safely, many do not know that fruits and vegetables require care, too.

"When you buy any produce, fruit, vegetables, even if you are going to remove the skin, you need to wash it," she said.

Untold numbers of people have handled the produce before it reaches a home kitchen, and it may have been sprayed with pesticides.

"Most of our food comes from out of the country, and they don't have the regulations that we do," Matyas said.

The sharp edge of a knife or peeler can pull bacteria, dirt or chemicals into the flesh of the fruit or vegetable, she said.

"You don't have to buy special soaps or anything like that," Matyas said. "You need friction just rub it under running water."

After the turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls, green bean casserole and peas with pearl onions are devoured, dinner guests will always have room for dessert.

Matyas said that custard pies, including pumpkin, should be refrigerated until and after serving time.

"You don't want to leave them out continuously," she said.


No matter how scrumptious the meal, there are bound to be leftovers.

Matyas advises people to spread hot foods out as much as possible to let them cool a bit before refrigerating them. So instead of simply leaving that serving bowl of mashed potatoes or stuffing on the counter to cool, "spread it out in a shallow baking pan in a thin layer so the surface temperature reduces quickly. Otherwise, it will take too long to cool and the middle may still be warm. You really don't want to leave it on your counter until it reaches room temperature and then put it away," she said.

While the turkey and all the trimmings make for delicious noshing for days to come, Matyas advises people to keep tabs on how long the food is kept, and not to keep reheating it.

She recalls one woman who reheated a fish dish three times and became ill.

Limit the number of times food is reheated, with once being the ideal, she said.

"You've prepared and are eating it, that's once. If you reheat it again, that's twice. Reheat leftovers by the portion instead of the entire dish" she said.

Typically, most leftovers can safely be kept for three days. Fish should be kept one or two at most. Leftover turkey, stuffing and gravy is usually good up to four days. Vegetables can survive up to five days.

Matyas said that if leftovers smell odd or look bad, get rid of them.

"When in doubt, throw it out," she said.

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