Cooks across the country are making plans for holiday feasts that include everyone’s favorite dishes, from cornbread stuffing to pumpkin pie. Friends and families are invited, and excitement is in the air. Food safety is probably not the first thing you think about when planning a holiday dinner. But to keep your gathering from being memorable in the wrong way, it’s important to take steps to protect your guests from food-borne illnesses.
While the U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, some 76 million people get sick from food-borne illness every year, according to the CDC. And food safety can be a special challenge during the holidays. Not only is it cold and flu season, but the menu may includes more dishes than there is room for in the refrigerator or oven.
“It takes skill, timing and organization to pull off a healthy holiday meal with all the dishes that need to be kept at proper temperature so bacteria won’t have a chance to grow,” says food safety expert Missy Cody, PhD, RD, head of the nutrition division at Georgia State University.
Further, most guest lists include people who are especially vulnerable to food borne illness — older people, young children, pregnant women, or anyone with a compromised immune system. And your menu may include food offerings from friends and relatives that have traveled for hours or have been kept at room temperature for extended time. (“Advise your guests to put piping hot food into a container before they leave home and when they arrive, be sure to refrigerate promptly or reheat to 165 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Cody.)
To make sure your holiday dinner is not only delicious but as safe as possible, WebMD asked the experts for their best holiday food safety tips. Here are their top 10 suggestions:
- Have a master plan. Chefs do it, and so should you. Consider your refrigerator, freezer and oven space, and how you’ll manage to keep hot foods at 140 degrees or higher and cold foods at 40 degrees or below. If you need to use coolers, make sure you have plenty of clean ice and check it frequently to be sure the ice hasn’t melted. “Whatever you do, don’t rely on the natural outdoor temperature on the porch to keep foods at proper temperature” says Cody.
- Cook to proper temperature — and use a thermometer. There is simply no other way to determine that food has been cooked enough to kill bacteria. “Turkeys, stuffing, side dishes, and all leftovers should be cooked to at least 165 degrees and kept above 140 degrees during serving to be sure that any potential bacteria is destroyed,” says Karen Blakeslee, MS, of the Kansas State University Food Science Institute. “Remember the golden rule: Keep hot food hot and cold food cold.”
- Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of preparation. Leaving food out too long is one of the biggest holiday food safety problems. “It is so easy to linger around the table, but when food sits outs for more than two hours in the danger zone — above 40 degrees and below 140 degrees — it is prime for bacterial growth,” says Blakeslee. Adds Cody: “Store leftovers in 2-inch deep, shallow containers and make sure the refrigerator is not over-packed and there is plenty of air circulating around the food so it can be properly cooled.” Blakeslee suggests cutting the meat off the turkey to allow it to quickly cool to proper temperature, as well as make it easy to store.
- Properly defrost your turkey, or buy a fresh one. “If you choose a frozen turkey, allocate 24 hours per 5 pounds to defrost in the refrigerator, and whatever you do, don’t defrost the bird on the kitchen counter,” says Blakeslee. In light of drought conditions in certain areas of the country, defrosting the bird using frequently changed cold water seems wasteful. But it is safe (albeit time-consuming), as long as you change the cold water bath every 30 minutes.
- Wash your hands thoroughly and often — before, during, and after food preparation. “Simply washing hands is one of the easiest ways to minimize bacterial contamination and keep your food safe,” says Blakeslee. Wash with hot water and soap, up to your wrists and between your fingers, for approximately 20 seconds.
- Wash all fresh produce. Wash even prepackaged greens, to minimize potential bacterial contamination. Make sure kitchen counters, sponges, cutting boards, and knives are all well scrubbed.
- Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees. Filling a plate of food and popping it into the microwave for a few minutes may seem safe enough. But, says Cody, you really need to use a thermometer to make sure all the food is reheated enough to kill bacteria. “Microwaves heat in an uneven manner, so let the covered food sit for a minute or two to let the heat destroy any bugs, then check the temperature all around the plate.” she recommends.
- Keep guests (and sticky fingers) out of the kitchen. “Holidays occur during cold and flu season, which further compounds the fact that about half of all people have staph aureus bacteria on their fingertips,” says Cody. “So it is important to prevent anyone from picking at the food while it is being prepared,” She suggests serving simple appetizers to give guest something to nibble on until the meal is ready.
- Serve only pasteurized apple cider. Most juices, including apple cider, are pasteurized to destroy any harmful bacteria. While you can buy unpasteurized juice, it will contain a warning that it can cause serious illness in vulnerable people. “To be on the safe side, serve pasteurized cider at your holiday gatherings,” says Blakeslee.
- Be “egg-stra” careful with eggs. Many eggnog recipes call for uncooked eggs, but Marcia Greenblum, RD, MS, of the Egg Nutrition Center says “to be perfectly safe, you need to use pasteurized eggs or cook the eggs yolks lightly with the sugar (recipe below) to be sure you kill any potential salmonella bacteria.” She also advises that eggs be kept refrigerated until ready for use and always cook egg products to 160 degrees. See below for a recipe for cooked eggnog.