Nutrition Articles

Thanksgiving Turkey Tips

Selecting, Cooking and Storing this Thanksgiving Favorite

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Is it your turn to host the annual Thanksgiving feast for the entire family? Tackling a turkey—without being traumatized—isn’t that tough. Here are the answers to the most common turkey questions.
What size turkey should I buy?
You’ll need about one pound per person, or a pound and a half per person if you have hearty eaters or want ample leftovers.
When should I buy the turkey?  
While the quality and taste of frozen and fresh turkey are quite similar, the keeping time is not. A frozen turkey can be purchased months in advance, but a fresh bird should be bought only 1 to 2 days ahead. 
What kind of turkey should I buy?
Personal preference usually dictates this choice. There are basically two types of raw birds to choose from at the grocery store:

1.      A pre-basted bird contains ingredients such as vegetable oil, broth and spices.
2.      An un-basted bird has had nothing added. 

USDA Grade A poultry has good shape, structure and fat covering, and is free of pinfeathers and defects, such as cuts and bruises. Grade A is the highest quality grade for poultry and is the most common grade found in stores. 

Should I buy an organic, Kosher or heritage turkey?
The USDA requires all turkeys that are labeled "organic" to be certified by the National Organic Program which ensures that animals are fed an organic, vegetarian diet, have access to the outdoors and aren't treated with hormones or antibiotics. (Note: The USDA does not allow the use of hormones in any turkey production.)

Kosher turkeys are raised in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. They are put through a salting process that keeps the meat moist and makes brining unnecessary.

"Heritage" turkeys are actually any of several older breeds that have not been cross-bred for the larger breast that is favored by most people. These turkeys are trickier to prepare properly but can be more flavorful than grocery-store turkeys. You'll have to special order this kind of bird or reserve one from a local farm. The term "heritage" is NOT regulated by the USDA so make sure you purchase this type of bird from a trusted source.

Is a "tom" better than a hen?
Age, not gender, is the determining factor of tenderness. All turkeys on the market are young, usually 4-5 months old. A hen generally weighs less than 16 pounds and a tom usually over 16 pounds.
How long will it take to defrost a turkey?
It is best to defrost your turkey in the refrigerator. The rule of thumb is to allow a minimum of 24 hours for every 4 pounds of turkey:
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • Great article! - 11/13/2014 5:58:27 PM
  • Love the defrosting guide.......sure will help plan my day better and not have a 1/2 frozen Turkey to stuff. Yes, that actually happened to me a couple of years ago. Think I'd have known better.....I do now!!!!! - 11/8/2013 1:28:06 PM
  • To be really safe, get a digital thermometer to check internal temps. I prefer cooking dressing in a pan not in the bird, just for safety sake too. Happy Thanksgiving, Sparkers! - 11/18/2012 3:40:52 AM
  • I'm not so sure about the roasting time of the turkey. You suggest 15-18 min. per pound. That calculated to 5.23 hrs for my 20.93 lb bird. On the Butterball turkey itself it says for a 18-22 lb unstuffed turkey to cook it for 3 1/2 - 4 hours.

    I think I will use what the turkey people say. Sorry Sparkpeople.

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone and good luck eveyrone.

    - 11/24/2010 10:01:45 AM
  • Interesting - only I live in Canada and we celebrate our thanksgiving in October (No not because its SO COLD up here - Martin Frobisher celebrated it in 1578).
    I have to question the wisdom of buying a prebasted bird as the ones I am familiar with (ButterBall) are injected with a TON of COCONUT OIL amongst other rather nasty things.
    We got one one time as a gift. Its seems to me to be worht the time and trouble to prepare it all oneself ,mainly because then you have more control over what does and doesn't go into the bird. - 11/22/2008 9:40:48 PM
  • Thanks for the useful information and I will keep it in a safe spot with my others. I appreciate that you have posted this information, b/c I keep forgetting all this. It will help me on Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. Thanks again. Alaskan - 11/20/2007 11:17:39 PM
  • Wonderful tips. Thank you! - 11/17/2007 7:48:47 PM
    Hi I am a big 4 foot 6 inches person who needs to lose weight and need all the help I can get. Thank you for your article on Turkey please keep them coming devonmarie - 11/17/2007 10:58:21 AM
  • Excellent information. Thanks - 11/17/2007 10:24:42 AM

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