Tips for a Healthy Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving often involves eating a big meal centered around turkey and then retiring to the easy chair or couch for a nap. Turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid that is a chemical precursor to melatonin, a neurotransmitter known to induce sleepiness. However, while the holidays can be exhausting, scientists say it’s a misbelief to blame turkey for the post-meal nap.

Thanksgiving turkey

Research has shown that, following a large meal, less tryptophan will reach the brain than on an empty stomach. The real culprit is the types and quantity of food you’ve eaten. Blame your sleepiness instead on high-calorie, high glycemic index foods.

Here are a few easy science-based tips to ensure not only a delicious turkey but a healthy Thanksgiving.

Defrost safely

If your Thanksgiving turkey is frozen, when you defrost it keep the outside of the bird below 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius). Pathogens such as Salmonella or Campylobacter don’t grow below that temperature. You can do this by putting the bird in cool water or the refrigerator.

If you go the route of the refrigerator — likely the easier of the two options — note that it can take additional time to thaw. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it takes about 1 day for every 4-5 pounds [1]. If you thaw your turkey this way, be sure to catch any drippings under the turkey so you don’t contaminate ready-to-eat foods like apples or lettuce.

Don’t wash that bird

Running a raw turkey under the faucet doesn’t remove bacteria. In fact, doing so can spread pathogens around the kitchen. Splashing water can aerosolize bacteria and carry them around the room. Instead, wipe the turkey with a paper towel to remove foreign debris.

With all that cooking going on in the kitchen, make sure you keep track of your knives and cutting boards. Anything that’s touched raw meat needs to be washed with soap and water to prevent cross-contamination — that includes your hands and the countertop. If you’ve thawed your turkey in water, be sure to clean the sink with soap and water to remove any bacteria.

Cook your stuffing separately

The USDA advises against stuffing the turkey [1]. Instead, cook your stuffing outside the bird. Stuffing can easily become contaminated with Salmonella from inside the turkey. In addition, thick breading can interfere with moisture migration and cause the turkey to cook more slowly. This makes it even more difficult to get the breading hot enough to kill bacteria without overcooking the turkey.

If you decide to stuff the bird anyway, be sure to use a food thermometer. The center of the stuffing needs to reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius). Let the bird stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing and carving.

The perfect turkey

Why does meat get dry when it’s overdone? As meat is cooked, heat flows in and denatures (meaning unfolds) proteins. Once unfolded, the proteins no longer wrap around water molecules in the cells and stick together, making the meat tougher.

The challenge with cooking a turkey is that it has two different kinds of meat. White breast meat is very different from dark leg, thigh and wing meat.

Muscular dark meat is reinforced with connective tissue, tendons and ligaments, all of which are abundant with a protein called collagen. Softening dark meat takes hours of roasting to turn the collagen into gelatin that moistens the meat. In contrast, white meat doesn’t have much collagen and is abundant in myosin and actin proteins. White meat becomes tender after myosin breaks down, occurring at a lower temperature than what is required to break down the collagen in dark meat. This is the reason why it’s common to have a turkey with moist dark meat but dry white meat; the white meat has been overcooked.

To avoid this, you could prepare the turkey parts individually and cook them to the optimal texture and temperature. Another option is to start out with the breast section cooler than the rest of the bird. This can be accomplished by placing an ice pack on the breasts while the bird is thawing or for about a half-hour prior to cooking. This will allow the different meats of the turkey to cook more evenly. You’ll have to add 15-30 minutes to the cooking time to ensure the white meat is fully cooked. Remember that a whole turkey is safe cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius) throughout the bird.

One last thing to consider is basting. Many people baste their turkey with hot juices right from the roasting or drip pan. However, pouring very hot liquid over white breast meat causes it to cook faster. You can baste legs and wings with the hot liquid right from the pan, but let the juices cool down before you baste the breast. This will help maintain some moisture in the meat, add flavor and keep the turkey cooking properly.

Give thanks

People typically give thanks during the holiday for family, food and home. But did you know that research has found that expressing gratitude is also good for your health?

Scientists have shown that being grateful affects an individual’s health in a positive way. Grateful people report having a heightened sense of well-being, greater optimism and improved life satisfaction [2-4]. Not surprisingly, writing letters of gratitude also has positive psychological and physical benefits.

Have a safe and healthy Thanksgiving!


  1. Food Safety of Turkey … from Farm to Table. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Accessed 2011 Nov 22
  2. Froh et al. Counting blessings in early adolescents: an experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. J Sch Psychol. 2008 Apr;46(2):213-33. Epub 2007 May 4.
    View abstract
  3. Froh et al. Measuring gratitude in youth: assessing the psychometric properties of adult gratitude scales in children and adolescents. Psychol Assess. 2011 Jun;23(2):311-24.
    View abstract
  4. Emmons and McCullough. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Feb;84(2):377-89.
    View abstract
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.