Why You Need a Food Thermometer on Thanksgiving

— Written By Katrina Levine
en Español / em Português

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A few years ago, after I started working in food safety, I had this brilliant idea to get my family members food thermometers as the perfect holiday gift. I thought that surely, as much as they heard me talk about the importance of food safety and thermometer use, they would see how thoughtful of a gift it was and would use it no less than at every meal.

Fast forward about a year to the following Thanksgiving with my parents hosting dinner, as they typically do. I always looked forward to traveling to Eastern NC, where I grew up, to spend Thanksgiving weekend with my parents and my sister, her husband, and their two kids. Mom had purchased her usual no-fuss Thanksgiving turkey that was seasoned and ready to cook. We prepped everything for the bird – always the center of our oven on Thanksgiving – and popped it in at a cozy 350ºF. We checked it every few hours to make sure it stayed moist and sheltered it with an aluminum foil blanket when its skin started to look a bit too crisp. We calculated based on its weight that the turkey would need about 4 hours to cook. At the four hour mark, we opened the oven to see if it was ready.

“What do you think? Is it ready?” Mom asked when we opened the oven, wafting away the steam and peaking under the foil blanket so we could get a good look at our star player. For those of you who know me, I’m sure you can imagine my expression at those words. Why on Earth was she asking me if it was ready? Have they learned nothing from me? “Where is the thermometer I got you last Christmas?” I asked her. “We need to use it to check that the turkey is at 165ºF or higher, remember?”

Mom looked questioningly at me. “Thermometer? Oh, I think it’s in the basket with the ‘things’…” Of course it is. I dug through the basket with the ‘things’ – believe it or not, I knew exactly which one she was talking about (hey, I’m my mother’s daughter after all). After a few back and forth comments of “are you sure it’s in here?” and “I can’t find it, where else could it be?” we finally found it buried at the bottom of the basket with the ‘things’.

What saddened me the most about this was not that my Mom wasn’t regularly using her because-I-care-about-you Christmas gift, but that she clearly wasn’t checking her food regularly to make sure it was cooked safely. This meant that her and my father (who were in their 60’s) were flirting with possibility of foodborne illness.

“Mom, you really need to use this when you cook. I don’t want you and Dad to get sick, and I know this is one way you can make sure that you don’t.” Although I didn’t want to add to her guilt, I also thought to myself, “I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if something like that – something that could have easily been prevented – happened to either of you.”

I demonstrated checking the temperature of the turkey in several places – the breast, wing, and thigh. It was well above 165ºF – the meat was literally falling off the bone, so that was one clue it was likely to be done. I also reminded her that the pop-out indicator, which this turkey had, wasn’t a reliable indicator of doneness, and neither was cutting it open to “look inside.” It’s a food thermometer or bust (barf?).

I wish that I could say that after that Thanksgiving Mom became an obsessive food temperature-taker, but it actually took several more reminders and using the thermometer myself when she was around to get the practice to stick. This is part of what we mean by adopting a food safety culture – when you make it the norm to do something, like use a food thermometer, others around you are likely to follow.

Now I don’t have to try and remember to bring my own food thermometer to Thanksgiving or other holiday gatherings, because I know my family has their thermometers armed and ready. The battle against foodborne illness may not be won, but with a food thermometer, the odds are in our favor.

Just don’t forget the extra batteries.

For more holiday food safety tips (and gift ideas), follow @SafePlatesFSIC on Facebook and Twitter, and @safeplates_ncsu on Instagram.

Photo by Benjamin Chapman (with permission)