Top 10 Holiday Food Safety Tips
Don’t be a turkey about food safety this season.
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
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
- 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
- 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 165degrees. 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
- 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.