Councilman Mike Elam's Blog

Nov 21

[ARCHIVED] Tips for a Healthy, Tasty Thanksgiving

The original item was published from November 21, 2016 10:28 AM to November 21, 2016 10:32 AM


Many of us will sit down to a wonderful meal with family and friends on Thanksgiving. While the aromas ofroasted turkey, cornbread stuffing and baking pies may seem to simply arise on the table, there are hours of behind-the-scenes preparation and labor that go into that meal.
Click this photo to watch a video about Thanksgiving food safety
More than 250 different foodborne illnesses have been discovered, and, most of the time, those illnesses are caused by how the meal is prepared. To help make sure that your guests do not become one of the many millions who become sick each year, these steps can help ensure a Happy Thanksgiving.


There are two ways to purchase your turkey from the local grocer — fresh or frozen. If you buy a fresh turkey, it should be purchased no more than one or two days before you cook it, and it should be stored in the refrigerator until you’re ready. If you buy your turkey frozen, it can be stored in the freezer until you’re ready, but it will take some time to thaw before preparing.

There are two main ways to thaw a frozen turkey. Whichever method you choose, remember to leave the bird in its original wrapping, and place it on a tray or large pan to collect any drippings. 

Thawing in a Refrigerator
For every 4-5 pounds in total weight, plan for 24 hours in a refrigerator (set at 40 degrees or below) to thaw. After completely thawing, the turkey can be stored in the refrigerator for no more than two days.
  • For a 4-12 pound turkey (feeds 2-10 people), plan on 2-3 days to thaw.
  • For a 12-16 pound turkey (feeds 10-15 people), plan on 3-4 days to thaw.
  • For a 16-20 pound turkey (feeds 15-20 people), plan on 4-5 days to thaw.
  • For a 20-24 pound turkey (feeds 20-25 people), plan on 5-7 days to thaw.
Thawing in Cold Water
For every pound in total weight, plan on soaking in cold water for 30 minutes. Ensure that the turkey is in a leak-proof plastic bag to prevent cross-contamination and to prevent the turkey from absorbing water. You will need to change the water every 30 minutes until the turkey is thawed. Cold-water thawed turkeys should not be stored in a refrigerator and should be prepared immediately.
  • For a 4-12 pound turkey, plan on 2 to 6 hours of cold water thawing.
  • For a 12-16 pound turkey, plan on 6 to 8 hours of cold water thawing.
  • For a 16-20 pound turkey, plan on 8 to 10 hours of cold water thawing.
  • For a 20-24 pound turkey, plan on 10 to 12 hours of cold water thawing.


After thawing, there are a few methods you could use to add flavor and improve the juiciness of the turkey. These involve the use of a liquid, herbs and spices during the preparation process.

Brining involves the use of water, salt and other flavor enhancers before cooking. To brine, add ¾ cup of salt to one gallon of water (and other chosen flavors such as sugar, mild herbs or citrus) and dissolve into a large container big enough to hold the turkey, with at least one inch of liquid covering the bird. Keep the turkey submerged in the brine by using a heavy plate or other small weight, and store the covered container in the refrigerator for 12 hours to 2 days. Remove the turkey from the brine solution and pat dry before preparing. Be sure to discard the solution after removing the turkey.

Marinating involves applying an acidic liquid (such as vinegar, citrus juice or wine) and a cooking oil mixed with herbs and spices to the meat before cooking. To prepare a marinade, mix the desired ingredients in a separate container, and then cover the turkey with this mixture. To simplify, you may use a food-grade plastic bag or other large, lidded container and shake to cover completely. You can also inject the marinade into the turkey meat or poke holes in the turkey to infuse the mixture into the meat. The turkey can marinate in a refrigerator for up to two days. Do not use the leftover marinade unless it has first been brought up to a boil for several minutes to destroy any contaminants.

Basting involves using melted butter, turkey drippings or cooked poultry stock while the bird cooks. To baste, use a baster, a spoon or a brush to drizzle the liquid over the food while it cooks. Remember that every time yo
u open the oven door to baste the bird, you lower the internal temperature – so you may have to adjust your cooking time accordingly. You should also use clean utensils when basting to avoid cross-contamination. Using butter or another fat may add to the brown color of the finished bird, but you can prevent burning by covering the skin with tented aluminum foil when it reaches the desired color.


To kill all harmful bacteria, you should cook a turkey to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. For a more even cooking and to prevent burning, tuck the wing tips under the shoulders Photo of a cooked turkey resting from the oven
 before placing in the pan and rotate the turkey in the oven during the cooking process. Use a meat thermometer to check the innermost part of the thigh and the thickest part of the breast to determine doneness. To help redistribute juices after cooking, you should let the turkey rest at least 20 minutes after removing from the oven before slicing.
  • For a 4-8 pound turkey breast, you should plan at least 1.5 to 3 hours of cooking.
  • For an 8-12 pound turkey, you should plan at least 2.75 to 3 hours of cooking.
  • For a 12-14 pound turkey, you should plan at least 3 to 3.75 hours of cooking.
  • For a 14-18 pound turkey, you should plan at least 3.75 to 4.25 hours of cooking.
  • For an 18-20 pound turkey, you should plan at least 4.25 to 4.5 hours of cooking.
  • For a 20-24 pound turkey, you should plan at least 4.5 to 5 hours of cooking.

To prevent bacteria from contaminating other meal items, you should also cook them to their proper temperatures as well:
  • 145 degrees for fresh beef and fish or pre-cooked hams
  • 160 degrees for ground beef, raw pork/uncooked ham, and egg dishes
  • 165 degrees for all poultry, soups and stuffings/casseroles
  • Bring all gravies or hot sauces to a rolling boil for a few minutes before serving.

Thanksgiving celebrations can be long and joyous events. Don’t spoil the hours you’ve spent in preparing the meal by allowing contaminants to develop during serving.

graphic showing the tempearture safety zones for food presentation
  • Serve cold foods on ice or another cooling vessel, so that they do not reach temperatures above 40 degrees, and keep hot foods above 140 degrees. That 40-140 degree zone is when bacteria most abundantly develop.
  • Do not allow foods to stay at room temperature longer than two hours, and put all leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer when storing.
  • For best results, divide all leftovers into small portions before storing.
  • Turkey, stuffing and other leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for up to four days, but all should be reheated to an internal temperature of 165 degrees before serving (cooked turkey may be eaten cold, if stored properly).


Many will enjoy the holiday bounty with festive family parties and then nibble on leftovers as the weekend extends. Studies show that the average person will gain one to two pounds in weight over the six weeks from Thanksgiving to New Years. When you consider that the average American consumes approximately 4,500 calories through a traditional Thanksgiving meal, this is hardly a surprise.
Photo of a plate of Thanksgiving meal - turkey, potatoes, stuffing and more
However, instead of feeling guilty about the holiday celebration, why not consider a few swaps that give healthier options without a loss in flavor, such as:
  • Sweet potatoes or “faux potatoes” in exchange for traditional mashed potatoes and heavy cream can add nutrients and vitamins.
  • Whole-wheat flour substituted for half of the traditional white flour in breads, desserts and other recipes will increase fiber and nutrients while helping to control blood sugar levels.
  • You can also lower fat and calories by choosing frozen or whipped yogurt over ice cream or whipped cream atop cakes and pies.