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Thanksgiving is a time to follow family traditions, from baking Grandma's classic pie recipe to watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But it can also be a time of great anxiety, especially if this is your first time hosting such a food centered holiday. Don’t despair, rev up your cooking engines and start planning for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Planning and preparing for the holiday dinner may include questions. What kind of turkey should I buy? Should I purchase fresh or frozen? How do I roast my turkey? A few simple steps will ease holiday fears and ensure an appetizing and safe meal for your family. The following tips will help you prepare a successful and safe holiday meal.

1. Plan Ahead.

Planning ahead can cut down on stress and anxiety in food preparation. Plan the menu a couple weeks ahead of time. If you have family willing to bring a side dish, take them up on the offer. Shopping early and sharing the responsibility will ease the countdown tension to the meal.

2. Fresh or Frozen Turkey?

There is no difference in nutritional quality between fresh or frozen turkeys. Purchasing a frozen turkey in advance can help you take advantage of special sales. Fresh turkeys provide convenience because they don’t require thawing, but they have a very short shelf live. Before purchasing any bird, make sure there is enough space in the refrigerator or freezer.

3. When Should I Buy the Turkey?

Whole frozen turkeys take about 24 hours per five pounds to thaw in the refrigerator. So purchase a frozen turkey as far in advance as necessary to safely thaw it in the refrigerator. If you chose to buy a fresh turkey, purchase it only one to two day before the meal and keep it refrigerated.

4. How to Thaw the Turkey.

Thawing a frozen turkey is best done in the refrigerator. Place originally wrapped frozen turkey in a large pan in a 40°F or below refrigerator. Allow approximately 24 hours per 5 pounds of turkey to adequately thaw in the refrigerator. A 20-lb turkey could take up to five days. Don’t panic if you forget to take the turkey out of the freezer or don’t have room in your refrigerator for thawing. You can submerge the turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes defrosting time per pound of turkey. A 20-lb turkey could take up to 10 hours to thaw. Cook immediately after using the cold water bath method to thaw the turkey. Reminder: Remove the giblets from the turkey cavity after thawing. And cook separately.

5. How Long Does it Take to Cook Turkey?

Place your thawed turkey on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Roast in a 325°F oven for 12 to 15 minutes per pound of bird. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal cooking temperature of 165°F, as measured with a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. Even though your turkey may have a ‘pop-up’ temperature indicator, it is still recommended to check the internal temperature of the turkey with a food thermometer.

6. How to Carve and Serve the Turkey.

Once the turkey has reached the minimum internal temperature, let it stand for 20 minutes before carving to allow juices to set. The turkey will carve more easily. Use a clean cutting board that has a well to catch the juices. Making sure the knife is sharp before you start carving.

7. Can the Turkey be Cooked Ahead of Time?

Sometimes is may be easier to prepare your turkey the day before you plan to serve it. Visit UNL Food's site for safe guidelines and directions to roasting your turkey ONE day before the meal.

8. How to Store Turkey Leftovers.

If you have leftovers, it is important to store them in shallow containers in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of serving. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within 3-4 days or freeze. Cooked turkey keeps for three to four months in the freezer. If you are reheating leftovers, bring them to 165°F before serving.

9. Where Can I Get More Information?

Nebraska Extension can help you with a variety of Thanksgiving Food Preparation and Food Safety Tips at their website. 

The Meat and Poultry Hotline can also answer food safety questions on weekdays year-round. It is staffed by food safety specialists with backgrounds in food technology and safety. Call the hotline at: 1-888-674-6854 or send an email to: [email protected]

Nancy Urbanec

Nutrition Expert from UNL Extension

Nancy Urbanec brings over twenty-five years of Food Safety and Nutrition experience to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Service. As an Associate Extension Assistant for UNL, she has a degree in Family and Consumer Science and Secondary Education from Wayne State College. Nancy works with both adults and youth in the areas of food safety and healthy lifestyles. Learn more about Nancy and the other UNL Extension nutrition experts at ...

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