For most people, the holiday season is the rare time that they make turkey, ham, stuffing, and other foods. Cooking on those days often also means using gadgets and methods that are outside the norm. This year is also unique in that we are in the middle of a pandemic.
Most health professionals recommend you celebrate the holiday this year with only those in your household, especially in light of COVID-19 cases and deaths rising sharply. This fascinating article from the New York Times shares what 635 epidemiologists across the nation wide plan to do for Thanksgiving considering the current state of the pandemic. The majority are staying at home (64%) and recommend that others do as well. 21% shared they will participate in a Thanksgiving meal with others, but with extra precautions. This past Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also urged that people spend the holiday with only those in their household and limit traveling. Overwhelmingly the opinion among healthcare providers is that the safest choice at this time is to spend the holiday with extra precaution- maintaining the celebration within your household.
But, should you choose to host those from other households, we’ve also included information to help you establish some basic guidelines and precautions for the festivities. You may find it helpful to establish ground rules with those that plan to visit. Make sure you’re all on the same page before everybody gathers to help ease some of the potential worry and stress surrounding the virus.
We’ll start off with some tips for taking on food prep:
If you purchase a frozen turkey for Thanksgiving, keep it in the freezer until you’re ready to thaw it. Keep in mind that even small turkeys will take days to thaw if you go the route of using the refrigerator. Use cold water or a microwave to thaw a turkey. You can find approximate thaw times according to the size of turkey on the USDA’s website. Most important is that you don’t refreeze a turkey (or any item) after it has been thawed.
Fresh turkey should be kept in the refrigerator until it is time to cook; place the turkey on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator with a tray under it to catch any juices that may escape the packaging and contaminate the surrounding area.
When cooking a turkey in the oven, use a meat thermometer to ensure that the internal temperature reaches 165 °F. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.
For more even cooking, it is recommended that stuffing is cooked outside of the turkey. But if you choose to stuff the turkey, these tips will help prevent bacteria growth from under cooking or improper preparation.
- Do not prepare the stuffing ahead of time for the sake of saving a few minutes. Waiting until you are ready to stuff the turkey helps reduce the chance that bacteria grows in the mixture.
- Keep dry and wet ingredients separately until the stuffing is made.
- Turkeys should be stuffed just before it is time to place in the oven to avoid contamination from the turkey to the stuffing.
- Stuff the turkey loosely to allow for the heat to circulate within the cavity.
- When you check the internal temperature, place the thermometer into the deepest part of the stuffing to get an accurate reading. You will need to cook the turkey longer than you would if the turkey was not stuffed.
- Refrigerate the turkey and stuffing within two hours of cooking to avoid bacterial growth
Frying a Turkey
DIY deep frying has become more popular recently, and people have taken to frying turkeys on Thanksgiving. While it can be a delicious option, hot oil used for frying can cause severe burns and intense fires if improperly handled, as shown in the video below:
This can occur from using the wrong heat level, excessive oil, or improperly preparing the turkey before submerging it into the oil.
Water is a very dangerous liquid when deep frying. When water encounters very hot oil (about 350 °F) water vaporizes instantaneously turning into super heated steam. It expands quickly, which can cause oil to splatter and cause serious bodily injury. Do not let water get into the hot fat/oil or use water to cool or clean the appliance while food is deep-frying.
Use the fryer outdoors, and do not leave it unattended once it is hot.
The internal temperature of the turkey needs to reach 165 °F; do not check the temperature of the turkey while it is in the fryer, as it will give an inaccurate reading.
When using a deep fryer, always have a fire extinguisher nearby in case of an emergency. These reminders only scratch the surface of the information that should be reviewed before diving into this project. Extreme caution should be taken to avoid serious injury. Read the USDA’s page on deep fat frying food safety here.
The NCHFP, (The National Center for Home Food Preservation), is a publicly-funded center for research and education on home food preservation. They shared the following guidelines for storing food- which should occur within two hours of the food being cooked to avoid any bacteria or pathogen growth:
- Wash your hands before handling foods, and use clean utensils and surfaces.
- Refrigerate or freeze foods in covered, shallow (less than 3 inches deep) containers within 2 hours after cooking.
- Leave space around the containers or packages to allow cold air to circulate and to help ensure rapid, even cooling.
- Label food storage containers with the date so that the foods can be used within a safe time. Avoid tasting old leftovers. Plan to use any cooked foods within safe refrigerator or freezer storage times.
- Before serving, cover and reheat leftovers to 165 °F.
- Reheat soups, sauces, gravies and other “wet” foods to a rolling boil.
- If in doubt, throw it out.
How long do you have to eat all those delicious left-overs? If refrigerated, it is ideal to finish the leftovers within 3-4 days. If the items are frozen, they will be at their best quality if used within 6 months. Avoid refreezing foods once they have been thawed. The more times you cool and reheat food, the higher the risk of food poisoning. Bacteria can multiply when cooled too slowly or reheated insufficiently. To avoid food borne illnesses, it is ideal to separate leftovers into smaller portions to avoid reheating more than will be eaten.
COVID-19 precautions for the holiday
Evidence heavily supports that COVID-19 is mostly spread person-to-person via respiratory droplets. There is not currently any evidence that the virus can be transmitted through food. But as the virus can survive on surfaces, although for short periods of time, a few preventative steps can help ensure a safe(r) interaction this holiday.
- Before preparing or handling any food, wash your hands for 20 seconds.
- As the virus can spread if a person touches an infected surface and then their face, it doesn’t hurt to wear a mask during food prep to provide a tangible reminder to keep your hands off your face, and also prevent any particles from being spread onto the food via respiratory droplets.
- If you will be enjoying takeout food, or food prepared by others, clean packages/dishes once they arrive at your home and/or transfer food to dishes you have at home. Clean surfaces and wash your hands. This helps reduce the chance of cross contamination from the package/dish surfaces and your home, family, and guests.
- Hold gatherings outside when possible, and keep your distance from others. Wear a mask when you are not eating or drinking.
- If you must hold the gathering indoors, open windows and doors for airflow, run the air conditioning or heater (make sure the air filter is clean and high efficiency), or use an air purifier with a HEPA filter to help reduce the presence of the virus. Read more about air filtration recommendations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), here.
- Use disposable dishes and utensils to reduce handing potentially contaminated surfaces.
- Set up dining stations apart from those you do not live with, or eat in shifts if space doesn’t allow for distanced dining.
- Clean eating areas thoroughly after people are finished dining.
- Encourage frequent hand washing and/or provide hand sanitizer at tables, home entryways, etc., to promote hand hygiene.
If you have any additional questions about how to store, handle, or cook meat or poultry, you can call the USDA’s meat and poultry hotline (888-674-6854). They are available on weekdays, and also have pre-recorded food safety messages when they are closed.
This has been an overwhelming and difficult year. Hearing about and dealing with this pandemic is tiring. But it isn’t done dealing with us. Until we have a means to protect ourselves and our loved ones, contact, even with trusted friends and family could be deadly. Please, stay safe and follow the recommended guidelines so we can all be here to celebrate next year.
However you choose to spend this Thanksgiving, all of us at Courtney Medical Group wish you a safe, restful day.