Prepare Ahead for a Turkey Thanksgiving Dinner

— Written By Denise Baker and last updated by

Families are beginning to make plans for Thanksgiving dinner. If you are responsible for preparation of a turkey, consider the number of guests to be served, the supplies needed, and safe handling procedures for turkey. Poultry is a potentially hazardous food that has to be kept at certain temperatures to minimize the growth of bacteria. Bacteria multiply rapidly between the Danger Zone of 40°F and 140°F; and so, aim to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot to prevent foodborne illness. Larger quantities of food are typically prepared for Thanksgiving, so plan food preparation so that large amounts or large containers of hot food are not placed in your refrigerator at one time, which can make the refrigerator temperature rise above 40°F. A food thermometer and refrigerator thermometer will be helpful for safe food preparation. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides food safety information to help us enjoy safe food.

For many families, turkey is the main protein food on Thanksgiving tables. A serving size is 3 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards. But when selecting a whole turkey, allow 1 pound per person. If your choice is to prepare turkey breast, allow ¾ pound per person, or if it’s boneless, ½ pound per person. For a frozen pre-stuffed turkey, it’s best to allow 1¼ pounds per person. Make sure the frozen pre-stuffed turkey has a USDA or State mark of inspection, and never thaw before cooking. Fresh turkey should be purchased only 1 to 2 days before it is to be cooked.

If you buy a frozen unstuffed turkey, it is important to plan ahead for thawing time. The three safe ways for thawing recommended by the USDA, are in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in a microwave oven. For “refrigerator thawing,” allow about 24 hours for each 4 to 5 pounds and place the packaged turkey in a refrigerator, set at 40°F or below, on a bottom shelf in a container to catch juices to prevent cross contamination with other foods. A whole 12 to 16 pounds turkey will take 3 to 4 days to thaw in the refrigerator, and can be kept in the thawed state for up to two days. “Cold water thawing” takes a bit more work and takes about 30 minutes per pound, but is a good option if you are not able to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. A 12-16 pounds turkey will take 6-8 hours to thaw. Make sure the packaged turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag and submerge in cold tap water. Change the water every thirty minutes until the turkey thaws, and then cook the thawed turkey immediately. For “microwave thawing,” follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the recommendation on maximum turkey size, the minutes per pound, and the power level setting; and remember, you must cook it immediately after thawing. Remove the giblet package from a thawed turkey neck cavity and cook separately. The USDA recommends not to wash the raw poultry and to keep prepared foods away from the poultry preparation area to help prevent cross contamination. Clean and sanitize (1 teaspoon bleach in a quart of water) the sink and counter areas that may have become contaminated with juices from raw poultry.

There are several alternative ways to safely cook turkey to 165°F such as grilling, smoking, deep fat frying, and microwaving; but most people roast turkey. “Overnight Low Temperature Oven Roasting (below 325ºF)” is unsafe because a low temperature oven allows the turkey to remain in the “danger zone” too long where bacteria can grow rapidly. To safely roast a turkey in the oven, set the temperature no lower than 325°F and cook until the minimum internal temperature of the turkey and the stuffing is 165°F when measured with a food thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh and wing, the thickest part of the breast, and the center of the stuffing. Stuffing a turkey is not recommended because extended cooking time to safely cook the stuffing to 165°F can cause parts of the turkey to become overcooked, and that is why many of us prepare stuffing in a separate casserole. An estimate of oven roasting time for a 12 to 14 pounds whole, unstuffed turkey is 3 to 3¾ hours. But the only way to know if the turkey is at a safe minimum temperature of 165°F is to use a food thermometer.

The USDA roasting guidelines are to place turkey breast-side up on a flat wire rack in a shallow roasting pan 2 to 2 ½ inches deep with one-half cup of water in the bottom of the pan. You can use an aluminum foil tent placed loosely or a lid over the turkey during part of the roasting to control browning. If you want to accelerate the cooking time and free up your oven sooner, you can use an oven-cooking bag (follow manufacturer’s directions). Once the turkey is roasted to a safe minimum temperature of 165°F, let it stand for 20 minutes so juices can set for best carving.

Knowing a projected times for cooking a turkey and other foods, helps in planning a schedule ahead for cooking or warming side dishes so that safe, quality food is served. Write out your menu and food plan for shopping and preparation; that checklist made ahead can make a big difference when you are trying to enjoy being with your family. Many foods, like pies and side dishes, can be prepared a day or two ahead if you have enough refrigerator space for perishables. To serve turkey slices or casseroles that have been made ahead and refrigerated, always reheat to a minimum of 165°F. If you run out of refrigerator space on Thanksgiving Day, coolers with ice are handy for keeping prepared cold foods chilled, and a refrigerator thermometer can be used to make sure temperature stays at 40°F or below. Food warmers, chafing dishes, and crock-pots can be used to keep hot foods hot (minimum of 140°F) as they are prepared. Perishable leftovers will need to be placed in small containers and refrigerated or frozen within two hours of serving.

For more information on serving safe poultry and meat for a wonderful Thanksgiving meal, call your Mitchell Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension at 688-4811, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hot Line at 1-888-MPHotline or 1-888-535-4555 or check out information and charts on these websites: and

Updated on Nov 14, 2012
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