Holiday Food Tips

(Photo © bhofack2 from Getty Images via
(Photo © bhofack2 from Getty Images via

By Kayla Colgrove, MS, RDN, ACSM-CPT, Extension Educator in Lancaster County

Holidays are usually filled with family and food. Each family has different traditions that create many memories over the years. One of my favorite holiday traditions is enjoying my Grandma’s homemade dinner rolls. They have become a side dish tradition I absolutely love. Whatever traditions you enjoy, make sure you are serving food safely.

Whether you are cooking your first turkey or are an experienced cook, it is important to follow these steps to learn how to plan, cook, serve, store and reheat turkey.

Plan. You need to determine what size of turkey to buy. It is recommended to allow 1 pound of turkey per person. Then, decide if you are buying a fresh or frozen turkey. There is no difference in quality between a fresh or frozen turkey, but you need to keep a couple things in mind. If you buy a fresh turkey, be sure to purchase it only 1–2 days before cooking. You can buy a frozen turkey at any time as long as you have enough space in your freezer. Remember to cook a frozen turkey within 1 year for best quality.

The preferred method to thaw a turkey is in the refrigerator. Place the frozen turkey in a container to prevent juices from dripping on other foods and put in a refrigerator set at 40°F or below. Allow approximately 24 hours for each 4–5 pounds to thaw turkey. For example, it will take about 4 days to thaw a 16 pound turkey. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for 1–2 days. You can start thawing the 16 pound turkey in your refrigerator on the Friday before Thanksgiving. Visit for other safe thawing methods that are quicker, if needed.

Cook. There are a variety of ways to cook a turkey, but the most common is roasting. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey even if it has a “pop-up” temperature indicator. A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. For optimum safety, it is not recommended to stuff your turkey. Instead place stuffing in a casserole dish to cook. Use a food thermometer to check that the stuffing reaches an internal temperature of 165°F before serving.

Serve. Always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Hot foods should be held at 140°F or warmer by using chafing dishes, slow cookers and warming trays. Throw out any turkey left at room temperature longer than 2 hours.

Store. If you have leftover turkey, cut it into smaller pieces and refrigerate. Keep turkey in the refrigerator and eat within 3–4 days or freeze. Use frozen turkey within 2–6 months for best quality.

Reheat. Cooked turkey may be eaten cold or reheated. To reheat cooked turkey in the oven, set the oven temperature no lower than 325°F and reheat turkey to an internal temperature of 165°F when measured with a food thermometer. To help keep the turkey moist, add a little broth or water and cover.

Food safety is important all year-round, but don’t let bacteria crash your holiday parties and make you or your family sick. There are four simple steps to food safety according to the USDA.

Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often. Always wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food. Keep your kitchen, dishes and utensils clean. Rinse fresh produce under water and use a small vegetable brush to remove surface dirt, if needed.

Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate. Keep raw meat, poultry, eggs, seafood and their juices away from other food. Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood. After cutting raw meats, wash the cutting board, knife and countertops with hot, soapy water. Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.

Cook: Use a food thermometer to cook food to proper temperatures. Color is not a good way to decide whether meat, poultry or fish has been cooked to a safe temperature. It’s how much heat is in the middle of the meat that matters. The only way to know that meat has been cooked to a safe internal temperature is to use a food thermometer. See detailed cooking temperatures at end of this article.

Chill: Refrigerate promptly. Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods as soon as you get them home from the store. Never let raw meat, poultry, eggs, cooked food or cut fresh fruits or vegetables sit at room temperature more than two hours before putting them in the refrigerator or freezer. There are three ways to thaw food safely: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave. Never thaw food at room temperature. Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Eat leftovers within three to four days or freeze them.

The holiday season is often busy and stressful. Take time to care for yourself. Consider these tips for a healthier holiday:

Make healthier holiday choices. Prepare whole-grain crackers with hummus as an appetizer, use low-fat milk instead of heavy cream in casseroles and include fresh fruit at the dessert table. Choose turkey, roast beef or fresh ham as lean protein choices. Trim visible fat before cooking and go easy on sauces and gravies. Choose low-calorie drink options such as water with lemon or lime slices or seltzer water with a splash of 100% fruit juice. Use recipes with unsweetened applesauce or mashed ripe bananas instead of butter.

Create healthy holiday traditions. Adding seasonal activities to your holidays can be fun and also create healthier holiday traditions. Walk around your neighborhood instead of riding in your car to look at holiday lights and decorations. Incorporate winter activities such as sledding, ice skating, snow skiing or taking a winter nature hike. After a holiday dinner, organize a walk, basketball or football game to catch up with family members while incorporating fun physical activities.

Give to others. Spend time providing food or preparing meals for those who may need a little help. Give food to a local food bank or volunteer to serve meals at a shelter during the holiday season.

Since food is the center of many activities during the holiday season, preparing a holiday meal can be overwhelming. There is a lot to think about, including cooking a turkey, food safety, health & wellness and recipes. Nebraska Extension has a wealth of information on all of these topics at

• Turkey 101,
• Food Safety Basics – The Core Four Practices,
• Make Healthier Holiday Choices,


Food: Minimum Internal Temperature
• Beef, Pork, Veal and Lamb (steaks, chops, roasts): 145°F and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes
• Ground Meats (beef, pork, veal, lamb): 160°F
• Ham, Fresh or Smoked (uncooked): 145°F and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes
• Fully Cooked Ham (to reheat): 140°F for ham packaged in USDA plants, 165°F for all other hams
• All Poultry (whole birds, parts, ground poultry and stuffing): 165°F
• Eggs: 160°F
• Fish and Shellfish: 145°F
• Casseroles: 165°F