Holiday Meal Preparation

Learn some basic tips from the Health Department on how to prepare a large meal, like a holiday dinner, safely for family and friends.

Page archived as of November 23, 2015

Tip 1: Wash Your Hands

Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly during food preparation and cooking activities, especially after you’ve handled raw meats or poultry.

Tip 2: Prevent Cross-Contamination

Store raw meat and poultry in the bottom of your refrigerator where juices can’t drip onto foods that will not be cooked.

Wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counter tops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item, and before you go on to the next food. Rinse with clean water, and then use a small amount of chlorine bleach mixed with water (1/2 tablespoon bleach per ½ gallon of water) on all surfaces.

Tip 3: Homemade Egg Nog

Remember that raw eggs can carry dangerous bacteria like Salmonella. If you make your own egg nog, remember to use pasteurized eggs. Pasteurized eggs typically come as a liquid product in a carton similar to milk, but some stores also carry eggs that have been pasteurized in their shells. 

Tip 4: Frozen vs. Fresh Turkey, Duck or Goose

For frozen birds, allow at least 24 hours of thawing time for each 5 pounds of raw poultry. Thaw the bird in the refrigerator at 41°F or below in its original wrapping, never at room temperature, as warm temperatures promote bacterial growth. Other safe methods of thawing include: under cold running water that is 70°F or less, or in a microwave. (If you choose to microwave, you’ll need to cook the bird right away.)

The USDA advises that you cook a fresh bird within two days of purchase or freeze it.

Tip 5: Preparation of Poultry

Remove giblets from the bird cavity before cooking separately or discarding.

Do not wash the bird. Studies have shown recently that the juices (and therefore harmful bacteria) can be spread up to four feet from your sink during the washing process.

For optimum safety, stuffing the inside of a bird is not recommended. Ideally stuffing should be cooked separately and then checked to be sure that it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. If you do stuff your bird, make sure both the meat AND the stuffing reaches 165°F.

Tip 6: Cooking Turkey

To know if food has been thoroughly cooked, use a metal stem food thermometer to check the internal food temperature. For safety, cook the turkey until all internal temperatures reach 165°F.


Size of Turkey  

Cooking Time 


Unstuffed Turkey 

Stuffed Turkey 

8 to 12 pounds

2 ¾ to 3 hours

2 ¾ to 3 hours

12 to 14 pounds

3 to 3 ¾ hours

3 to 3 ¾ hours

14 to 18 pounds

3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours

3 ¾ to 4 ¼ hours

18 to 20 pounds

4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours

4 ¼ to 4 ½ hours

20 to 24 pounds

4 ½ to 5 hours

4 ½ to 5 hours


Tip 7: Special Holiday Meats

The USDA offer great advice on how to handle and roast holiday meats other than turkey or chicken. For information on cooking beef roasts, lamb, pork, ham, or venison click here

Tip 8: Cooking

To know if food has been thoroughly cooked, use a metal stem food thermometer to check the internal food temperature. For safety, cook poultry until all internal temperatures reach 165°F; cook beef and pork to 145°F. For ground meats, cook to 160°F.

Visit the USDA website for more detailed information on cooking. 

Tip 9: Leftovers

Don’t leave perishable foods at room temperature - Keep hot foods hot (at least 135°F) and cold foods cold (41°F or below).

Discard any leftovers that have been at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.

Divide leftovers into small portions. Refrigerate or freeze in shallow containers for quicker cooling.

Cooked foods should be cooled: 

  • Within two hours, from 135°F to less than 70°F, and
  • Within a total of six hours to 41°F or less. 

Tip 10: Reheating Leftovers

Thoroughly re-heat any leftovers to an internal temperature of 165°F.