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The Table's Timetable
Follow safety guidelines to avoid illness this holiday

If you're like most Americans, you'll probably graze along at least one table topped with mouth-watering meats and ample side dishes this week.

Whether you fill your plate once, twice or three times this Thanksgiving, pay attention to how long Aunt Sally's deviled eggs and Grandma's famous roasted turkey sit out on the dining room table.

Health experts say leaving your holiday spread out all day is not the way to go.

"Consumers should use the two-hour rule," said Danielle Shore, senior vice president for food safety for the International Food Information Council. "What you can do is put a certain amount out and keep replenishing."

While many families enjoy going back to their feast throughout the day, simply covering the food does not suffice.

Shore said food should be kept hot, or cold, depending on the dish, until serving time to keep harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying.

The turkey

The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests buying your bird no more than two days ahead of the time it will be served. And if it's a frozen turkey, the USDA says it's best to defrost the fowl in the refrigerator, allowing 24 hours of thaw time for every five pounds.

Keeping the raw turkey juices away from other foods is also important.

After the turkey is cooked and everyone's done eating, the safest and most convenient way to store remaining meat is to cut it off the bone, according to the USDA.

The stuffing

Whether you fancy cornbread, oyster or bread stuffing, the experts say the safest way to cook the sponge-like concoction is outside the turkey cavity.

But if you feel it's just not the holidays without a stuffed bird, Shore said make sure the stuffing reaches an internal temperature of at least 165 F to avoid contracting salmonella poisoning from raw turkey juices.

Keep it clean

Many food-borne illnesses can be combated by simply keeping food preparation surfaces clean and washing your hands.

Experts with the Gwinnett County Heath Department suggest not only keeping hands clean but also work surfaces, utensils and foods.

Shore said many people often make the mistake of using the same cutting board for both raw and cooked foods.

"You can cross-contaminate," Shore said. "It's best to use separate cutting boards for cooked and uncooked foods."

Time and temperature

When it comes time to cook the Butterball, health experts note that temperature is key.

"Meats such as turkey can have bacteria, such as salmonella and campylobacter," Shore said. "If it's not the right temperature, bacteria can cause food-borne illness."

According to the USDA's Web site, the thigh of the turkey must reach 180 F to be considered done and safe to eat. It's best to use a meat thermometer to check the temperature, as a pop-up indicator may be erroneous.

Other meats have proper cooking temperature guidelines as well, Shore said.

"Ham should reach 160 degrees," Shore said. Because cooking temperatures vary with different types of hams, she suggests following cooking instructions listed on the package.

The leftovers

Leftover turkey, stuffing and gravy can also turn into a breeding ground for bacteria and potential illness.

"Foods left out more than two hours really should be thrown away," Shore said. "Other foods you should refrigerate or freeze quickly."

Shallow containers, which allow food to cool quickly, are best for storing what's left, Shore said.

Meat and stuffing should be stored separately and should enter the fridge within two hours of cooking.

How long is it safe to savor holiday leftovers?

Three to four days is the max for stuffing, turkey and other perishable foods. Gravy should be disposed of in a day or two, Shore said.