Food Safety Guide: Holiday Edition
As the holidays near, there’s no doubt that everyone’s looking forward to gathering with their friends and family to celebrate. One of the best parts about this time of year is the endless amounts of food that seems to always be around, ready to fill our bellies and force us wear those extra-stretchy pants. Unfortunately, if you’re the one in charge of hosting your loved ones for the holidays, you’re probably also the one appointed to cook for everyone. From digging out your recipes, to making sure the table is set correctly, it might seem like such a daunting task. However, before you even begin to think about which side of the plate the fork and knife go on, you must make sure that your food is safely prepared, cooked, and stored for all to enjoy. Although food safety is something to be remembered all year round, it doesn’t hurt to refresh your memory on exactly how to prevent food-borne illness, especially during the holiday season.
“before you even begin to think about which side of the plate the fork and knife go on, you must make sure that your food is safely prepared, cooked, and stored for all to enjoy”
The first task to food safety begins right in the shopping aisle. Always check the expiration dates on every product before putting them in your cart, verifying that they have not past. Inspect cans to make sure that they are not dented or rusted, and that all packages are sealed and not leaking. You should also purchase refrigerated and frozen foods after you are finished with the non-perishables. This will prevent those foods from thawing too much and potentially becoming contaminated during your ride home. Therefore, once you do arrive home, make sure all perishable foods are put away within two hours, but of course, the sooner the better.
Now, that you have finished running back and forth to the grocery store because there seems to be just one more thing you need, it’s time to start preparing your foods. However, before you even begin to think about picking up that recipe book, always wash your hands. Many people forget that their hands can carry lots of bacteria that can spread easily to food. Thus, this is one of the easiest and most preventable steps you can take to ensure that your food is safe and ready for all to enjoy. Wash your hands with soap and warm, running water for at least 20 seconds. Ensure that you have adequate space to spread out your work to avoid cross-contamination. You do not want your raw meat or seafood juices to mix with already prepared food. If you only have one cutting board at your disposal, make sure it’s properly sanitized with one tablespoon of bleach and one gallon of water in between use of raw and cooked foods.
Preparing meats and seafood requires extra precautions, especially when thawing. Thawing them in the refrigerator is the best and safest method. However, if you’re in a pinch for time (or have absolutely no room left in your refrigerator), you can place the meat in a sealed plastic bag and submerge in cold water that’s changed every 30 minutes and then cooked immediately after. Any package of meat left on a counter for over two hours is no longer safe. Although it may still appear frozen, the outer part of the meat is most likely thawed, and can already have dangerous bacteria growing on it. Thawing meat takes time, especially that big ole’ holiday turkey you have sitting in your freezer. For every 4-5 pounds of turkey, you should allot 24 hours for thawing in your refrigerator. Whole chickens can also take about 24 hours to completely thaw. Make sure you plan in advance as to how much time (and space) you are going to need.
Once everything is prepped and you’re finally ready to throw everything into the oven, you can’t just set the oven to 350°F and walk away. For this step, meat thermometers will be your very best friend. A stuffed turkey needs to reach an internal temperature of 165°F before it is considered done and needs to be cooked in temperatures no lower than 325°F. Chicken should also be roasted until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F in an oven set to 350°F. All beef steaks and roasts should reach an internal temperature of 145°F before they are considered done. Although time may be a good indicator as to when to check the temperature of cooking meat, never completely rely on it. Always use a thermometer stuck at least two inches down that’s not touching any bone or fat.
You’ve finally made it to the holiday dinner. While it may seem easiest to sit back, relax, and enjoy the company, you must not forget to safely serve the food you worked so hard to make. Hot foods should be kept at 140°F or warmer, and cold foods need to be kept at 40°F or cooler. Regularly check to temperatures of your food, and either put foods back in the oven or refrigerator as needed. If you have chafing dishes or warming trays, these can also be used to keep hot foods at the appropriate temperature. Cold foods can be kept on ice that’s replaced as needed, or on smaller serving trays that are changed often.
Since most people are terrified that they’re not going to make enough food, we all almost always make too much for everyone to eat, thus creating the wonderful thing called leftovers (also meaning you don’t have to cook for a few days to come). When the party is over and everyone is finished raving about how delicious your food was, make sure you package leftovers appropriately so they can still be enjoyed and your hard work does not have to be thrown away. As long as food was not sitting out for over two hours, they can be packaged in shallow containers and put away in the refrigerator. That being said, your holiday does not end when your guests leave, it ends when you run out of leftovers and have to start cooking all of your meals again.
Being in charge of holiday meals may seem scary at first. On top of everything else to worry about, you definitely don’t want to even think about your holiday party going down as the one everyone got sick from. However, take a deep breath and don’t fear, if you follow these very simple safety tips, you will prevent any harmful mishaps from occurring with your food. Never forget to wash your hands, allot enough time for thawing, cook and serve foods at the appropriate temperatures, and properly store leftovers. Best of luck to all of those cooking for the holiday season, and have a happy and healthy (and free from-foodborne illness) New Years!