You've invited the guests, decorated the table and prepared the food. Then the guests are delayed, call to cancel or don't show at all. Holiday meals and other celebrations require careful planning to ensure that everything goes as planned. When guests encounter emergencies and the meal must be delayed or cancelled, food must be handled "just right" to remain safe.
Every Thanksgiving, the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline receives inquiries from consumers who need help with these unplanned situations. Here are just a few.
Q. The turkey’s in the oven and I just heard the snowy weather report advising everyone to stay home. What should I do with all the food?
A. First of all, don’t panic, but go ahead and finish cooking the turkey. If your guests can re-schedule within four days, cooked foods can be stored safely in the refrigerator. Slice turkey and arrange in shallow containers so the meat will rapidly cool to a safe temperature in the refrigerator. For longer storage, freeze any cooked food. Cooked frozen foods will keep their best quality (flavor, texture, juiciness) for 3 to 4 months. Also, most vegetable, rice and pasta dishes can be frozen. Cream sauces may become lumpy or separate when frozen and reheated, but they will be safe to serve again.
Q. Everything is ready for the big meal but my guests have been delayed at least an hour. What shall I do to hold the food?
A. Remember to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold and don't let any cooked food, meat or poultry remain in the Danger Zone — between 40 °F and 140 °F — for more than 2 hours.
If you have hot foods in the oven, you may be able to hold them safely until your guests arrive. Put a food thermometer in the thickest part of your turkey. Adjust the oven temperature so that the food stays at an internal temperature of 140 °F or above. To prevent dryness, cover the dishes or wrap with aluminum foil.
If the guests will be arriving much later, say three to four hours, the food will probably dry out if kept warm that long. For extended delays, it is safer to refrigerate the food and reheat it when your guests arrive. Slice turkey and arrange in shallow containers so the meat will cool rapidly to a safe temperature in the refrigerator. Do not worry about putting hot foods directly into the refrigerator because the thermostat will keep the unit running to maintain a safe temperature (40 °F or below). When your guests arrive, reheat food in a 325 °F oven to an internal temperature of 165 °F, or until hot and steaming. Cold foods should be kept refrigerated until mealtime.
Q. My stuffed turkey is ready NOW, and the guests are not arriving for three hours. Help!
A. If you have prepared a turkey and you have determined it is safely done several hours before serving time, remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to stand for 20 minutes. If the turkey is stuffed, remove the stuffing, place it in a shallow container, cover and refrigerate. Remove the legs, thighs, and wings, separate the meat from the bone if desired, and refrigerate.
The turkey can be served cold or reheated. To reheat the turkey, sprinkle with a little broth, cover with foil and heat in a 325 °F oven. The stuffing can be heated alongside the turkey.
Ask Karen, the virtual food safety representative, is available 24/7 at AskKaren.gov. Weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is available at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). On Thanksgiving Day, the Hotline will be open from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm Eastern Time.