Don’t serve romaine lettuce — and 4 other tips to avoid food poisoning on Thanksgiving

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Americans are set to serve up millions of pounds of turkey, vegetables, and sweets as they celebrate Thanksgiving this week.

Tens of thousands of people visit emergency rooms every year during the holiday, according to data from the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. And while cooking-related injuries and car crashes are the major drivers of these ER visits, food poisoning also puts a damper on the holiday cheer.

A home-cooked meal on Thanksgiving is certainly a holiday tradition for most, but home chefs would be smart to follow these tips to avoid making loved ones ill from their turkey day meal.

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Avoid foods that were recently recalled

For the second consecutive year, Thanksgiving is happening amid a nationwide outbreak of food-borne illness linked to romaine lettuce. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that consumers should not eat any romaine lettuce harvested from Salinas, Calif. So far, 40 people have fallen ill with E. coli infections linked to the leafy green.

The CDC has recommended that consumers confirm where any heads of romaine lettuce or pre-made salads including the green were harvested. If a consumer cannot determine where the lettuce was grown, they should not eat it, the CDC warned.

That isn’t the only recall or food-safety concern home chefs need to keep in mind. In recent weeks, everything from ground beef and chicken to Cheez-Its MDLZ, +1.11%  and Whole Foods-brand gelato AMZN, +1.30%  have been recalled due to a range of issues including undeclared allergens, potential foreign-object contamination and insufficient food-safety inspections.

Don’t wash your turkey before cooking it…

Contrary to popular opinion, you shouldn’t wash raw poultry — including turkey. As the CDC warns, washing poultry, meat or eggs spreads harmful bacteria around the kitchen and contaminates your sink.

Along those same lines, home cooks should thaw their turkey in the fridge and not on the counter to prevent the accumulation and spreading of bacteria. If brining the turkey, be sure to keep the bird in a container to prevent juices from leaking in the refrigerator. If you’re doing a wet brine, be careful when discarding the brining liquid so that it doesn’t splash all over your kitchen.

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If the raw turkey or its juices do somehow make their way onto counter-tops or the sink, it’s important to properly disinfect the area. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends sanitizing the surface with a mixture of 1 tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water. When working with the raw turkey, you can also prevent against spillage by lining the counter-tops with paper towels.

Ultimately though, the only way to ensure that the turkey is germ-free is to cook it properly. You should check the internal temperature of the turkey in the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast with a food thermometer. To ensure that it’s fully cooked, the thermometer should read at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

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…and think twice before actually putting stuffing in it

Speaking of cooking the turkey, let this be the Thanksgiving where “stuffing” becomes an anachronism. If you stuff your turkey, you’ll need to ensure that the temperature of the stuffing also reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s because bacteria such as Salmonella may have traveled from the raw turkey to the stuffing before cooking. So if the stuffing isn’t cooked thoroughly enough, it could make your dinner guests sick.

Chefs argue that cooking the turkey with the stuffing already inside it makes for a less tasty meal. “Getting the stuffing to this temperature usually means overcooking the turkey,” celebrity chef Alton Brown wrote back in 2014. “The way I see it, cooking stuffing inside a turkey turns the turkey into a rather costly seal-a-meal bag.”

Brown’s alternative: Cook the stuffing separately in its own pan, and then stuff it inside the bird after the turkey is finished cooking. That way, the stuffing will absorb the turkey’s juices as it cools before you slice it.

Store food in the refrigerator after everyone’s helped themselves

Your loved ones may spend hours around the dinner table catching up and having a great time — or debating current events — during Thanksgiving, but your food shouldn’t be out that whole time. The longer food remains at room temperature, the more likely it is that bacteria will grow. And that could make your friends and family sick if they eat the leftovers later on.

How food is refrigerated is also important. For instance, turkey should be stored in a shallow dish so they cool faster, and the meat should be removed from the bones.

The CDC recommends refrigerating perishable food within two hours. Folks who live down south may want to be quicker getting the goods into the icebox — if the outdoor temperature registers above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the CDC says leftovers should be put away within an hour.

If your guests want seconds, they can always reheat some food in the microwave or oven after it’s been refrigerated.

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Know how long the leftovers are safe to eat

Even if you put the food away quickly, it won’t last forever. Some common Thanksgiving menu items will last quite a while, such as cranberry sauce, which stays good for up to 14 days in the fridge. Other foods, like gravy, are only safe to eat after one or two days.

You can extend the life of most foods by freezing them. Mashed potatoes are good for up to a year when frozen, for instance. When storing food in the freezer though, make sure it is in an airtight, freezer-safe container to ensure its freshness and prevent freezer burn.

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