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Turkey Thawing to Tossing Leftovers, Schedule Keeps Thanksgiving Foods Safe

A food preparation and storage schedule for your Thanksgiving feast will help ensure you are practicing good food safety procedures to protect your family from foodborne illnesses.

Hosting Thanksgiving can be a logistical challenge that starts with planning what to cook and ends with figuring out what to do with all of those leftovers. Janie Burney, a food safety specialist with University of Tennessee Extension, recommends that you streamline your Thanksgiving planning to ensure you have a fun and food-safe holiday.

Here’s a schedule that might help you plan for a food-safe Thanksgiving holiday:

Wednesday, November 16: How long does it take to thaw a frozen turkey in the refrigerator? Is your frozen turkey 20-24 pounds? If you are defrosting it in the refrigerator, today is the day to place that bird in the fridge. If your turkey weighs 16 to 20 pounds, allow 4 to 5 days of thawing. Allow 3 to 4 days for 12 to 16 pound turkeys and 3 to 4 days for 4 to 12 pound birds.

Monday, November 21: You can start making side dishes today. Stored in the refrigerator, they still will be good Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, November 22: Today is the day to purchase that fresh turkey. When you are purchasing your turkey, plan for 1 pound per person to ensure there is enough turkey to go around.

Wednesday, November 23: Do you need to thaw a frozen turkey quickly? If you haven’t started to defrost your turkey, use the cold running water method to ensure it’s thawed for Thanksgiving. Wrap your turkey securely and submerge in cold tap water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Allow 10 to 12 hours thawing for a 20 to 24 pound turkey, 8 to 10 hours for 16 to 20 pounds, 6 to 8 hours for 12 to 16 pounds, and 2 to 6 hours for 4 to 12 pounds.

It is safe to cook a turkey from the frozen state, says Burney. However, the cooking time will take at least 50 percent longer than recommended for a fully thawed turkey. “Remember to remove the giblet packages during cooking,” said Burney. “They can be removed carefully with tongs or a fork.”

Turkey cooking guidance: Is the turkey done? You cannot tell if a turkey is done just by the color. Your bird is not safe until it reaches 165° F. Check the temperature in three places: the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh. “Don’t forget to check the temperature of the stuffing, too!” the expert cautions. “This can be crucial to a food-safe holiday.” Burney recommends you take the turkey out of the oven and let it stand for 20 minutes before carving to allow the juices to settle.

Thanksgiving Day! Thursday, November 24: Don’t forget the 2-Hour Rule. Be sure to place all perishable food in a shallow container and put it in the refrigerator within 2 hours of cooking to prevent harmful bacteria from multiplying.

Monday, November 28: Today is the last day to eat those leftovers or put them in the freezer.

For additional information about food-safe practices, contact Sevier County UT Extension Family and Consumer Science Agent, Linda Hyder at 865-453-3695 or [email protected] You can also visit the UT Extension Family and Consumer Sciences website.

Through its mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. 

About UT Extension - Sevier County

UT Extension provides a gateway to the University of Tennessee as the outreach unit of the Institute of Agriculture. It is a statewide educational organization, funded by federal, state and local governments, that brings research-based information about agriculture, family and consumer sciences, and resource development to the people of Tennessee where they live and work. Sevier News Messenger distributes UT Extension news as a courtesy. UT Extension – Sevier County can be found at