By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

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Q: Hey Jason, my family is coming in for thanksgiving this year and I want it to be extra special (it’s my first one with my new in-laws!) What are some ways to make sure that my feast is safe? How far ahead can I prepare my broccoli/cheese casserole? I have a small kitchen and I want to prepare as much as possible before the big day.


Happy Thanksgiving Sarah! Great questions for this time of year.  You know, at my house on Thanksgiving, we always have broccoli cheese casserole too! It’s a staple at any of our holiday meals, but Thanksgiving is celebrated in a variety of ways across this great country of ours, and with a variety of delicious dishes. For example, if you live in Nevada or Idaho, you may be enjoying some frog eye salad. Or, if you live in Ohio, dirt pudding may be on your plate right next to the mashed potatoes. Either way, with all the tongue tickling dishes being prepared around this holiday, food safety is especially important to keep in mind. Let’s go ahead and dig in… (pun intended…)


Let’s start at the beginning and talk about thawing. I’m assuming that you are having turkey for dinner. Turkey is usually the “guest of honor” at Thanksgiving, but any meat will do…after all, Thanksgiving is not about the food, it’s about the people you spend it with. The food is secondary. How big is this bird? How long did you let this turkey thaw? Did you just remember this morning to take it out of the freezer?  It’s going to take more than a few hours to thaw out that 16-pound bird, and you can’t just throw it in the fridge and expect it to happen before noon. Generally speaking, you should allow about 24 hours for every 4 pounds of bird. That 16-pound bird you’ve got there? That’s going to take about 4 days to completely thaw. Don’t make the mistake of watching The Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special and forgetting to put the bird in the fridge.


Now, if you are familiar at all with my Ask A Health Inspector articles, you will remember how I have gone on and on about knowing, and reaching, final cook temperatures for safety. No exception here. Turkey must get to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F to be safe. I don’t care if you roast it, bake it, broil it, boil it, fry it (my personal favorite), smoke it, grill it, whatever…It must reach 165 degrees F inside the thickest part. Oh! and if you are one of those people who like to cook the stuffing inside the cavity of your turkey, well, that must reach 165 too. Just sayin’.  If you only take one thing away from this article today, let it be this: TURKEY MUST REACH 165 DEGREES F INTERNALLY TO BE SAFE.


Alright, moving right along through this thanksgiving feast, let’s talk about make-ahead preparation. Let’s say you want to make that broccoli cheese casserole about a week before the big day and check that off your list. That’s fine. Just remember to properly cool your casserole before putting it in the fridge. The requirement for restaurants in North Carolina, (and in my kitchen) is moving from a temperature of 135 degrees F to 70 degrees F within 2 hours, and from 70 degrees to 45 degrees in the next 4 hours. That should be easily achievable in your home kitchen unless you are making 47 pounds of casserole. (I always ask my wife to make extra because I COULD eat 47 pounds of broccoli cheese casserole…Ok, ok, probably not more than 45 pounds, but who’s counting?) Just be sure not to put your piping hot casserole into the fridge to cool. It won’t cool safely, and if your guests are going to get sick, you want it to be from over-indulgence, (they can’t blame YOU for that one), not improperly cooked and cooled food. And remember, you can hold a cooked and cooled food in your refrigerator for 7 days if it is maintained at 41 degrees or below.


Alright, let’s move right into reheating that delicious casserole. According to the 2017 NC Food Code, foods must be reheated from 41 degrees F to 165 degrees F within 2 hours. Doesn’t matter if you use the stove or the microwave, it must get to 165. This should be easy to remember because your TURKEY MUST REACH 165 DEGREES F INTERNALLY TO BE SAFE. (I might have said that before in this article.) Its only one temperature to remember, people! 165 degrees F. Know it. Live it. Love it.


OK, OK. I get it. The real question you want to know is how long can I nap while the food is still on the counter? Great question. In restaurants, if a food is going to be held outside of temperature control (that is, 135 or above for hot holding, and 41 or below for cold holding) it is safe for 4 hours, but they must have written procedures in place, and a way to monitor that food. Now at home, of course, you don’t need written procedures, but you do need to remember that you put that sliced turkey on the platter at 1:00, and you have 4 hours to safely leave it there. (6 hours if you can manage to keep the house temperature below 70 degrees F, but good luck with that if you have the stove and oven going, football on TV, kids screaming, coffee brewing, Uncle Adam leaving the front door open, neighbors popping in and out, and the other neighbor’s dog barking…A better move is it shoot for no more than 4 hours.) Now, the kicker is that at the end of that 4-hour period, that turkey must be discarded.  A far better move is to properly cool and refrigerate or freeze any leftovers as soon as possible so you get to have my favorite breakfast sandwich the next day…that is bread+mayo+broccoli cheese casserole+cranberry+gravy+turkey+mashed potatoes+dressing+cheesecake+more gravy+chocolate chip pecan pie+mayo+bread. Now THAT’S a breakfast sandwich.


And while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and address some thoughts on “The Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special”:

  1. Why does Charlie Brown keep trying to kick that football?
  2. As a health inspector, I find it appalling that a dog and a bird are placed in charge of the kitchen. The risk of salmonella alone would be astronomical!
  3. Why is Charlie Brown completely bald? (Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great look, but he’s a kid!) And Linus has a serious hair thinning problem…is there something in the water?
  4. It’s no wonder Charlie Brown’s eyes look like that…look how close he sits to the TV! Does he need glasses? This should be addressed!
  5. Why did everyone get invited to Charlie Brown’s grandmothers house except Snoopy, when Snoopy is the one who did all the work in the first place?
  6. Isn’t it weird that Woodstock would eat turkey?
  7. Where the heck are all the adults? The kids were going to have toast, popcorn, and jellybeans for thanksgiving, for Pete’s sake!


Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!