Holiday Food Safety Tips

Mary Gormandy White
Dave Joachim

Looking for holiday food safety tips? Dave Joachim and Andy Schloss, authors of The Science of Good Food share their expertise about this subject with readers of LoveToKnow Safety.

What particular risks does the holiday season pose in terms of food safety?

Food safety is important all-year long but especially around the holidays when poultry, stuffing, and buffets pose additional risks, particularly for the young and elderly guests at the holiday table. The most common sources of food-borne illness are raw foods of animal origin, such as raw meat, poultry, eggs, shellfish, unpasteurized milk and juice.

To avoid food-borne illness, follow three basic rules of food safety:

  1. Keep it clean. Wash your hands frequently with hot soapy water. Wash cutting boards, utensils, and work surfaces with a weak bleach-and-water solution. Rinse all produce with soapy water or commercial produce washes.
  2. Avoid cross-contamination. Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs away from foods that will be eaten raw. Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw and cooked food.
  3. Watch temperatures carefully. Cook foods, especially protein foods, to safe internal temperatures of at least 165°F. Keep hot foods hot (above 140°F) and cold foods cold (below 40°F). Whenever possible, keep foods out of the danger zone, which is between 40°F and 140°F. Use a food thermometer to test the internal temperature of foods. Marinate foods in the refrigerator and thaw them only in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in a microwave oven. A package of frozen meat or poultry left thawing on the counter for more than two hours will not be at a safe temperature.

What are the most important factors for holiday hosts and hostesses to consider about serving food to their guests during parties?

Andy Schloss

Safe Cooking and Serving Temperatures

Safe food temperatures are the biggest concerns around the holidays. If you are cooking foods ahead of time for your party, be sure to cook foods thoroughly to safe minimum internal temperatures.

Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey. A whole turkey is safe cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F throughout the bird. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast (without touching bone). All turkey meat, including any that remains pink, is safe to eat as soon as all parts reach at least 165°F. The stuffing should also reach 165°F, whether cooked inside the bird or in a separate dish.

Minimum safe temperatures for other types of meats include:

  • Beef, veal, and lamb steaks, roasts, and chops - 145°F.
  • All cuts of pork - 160°F
  • Ground beef, veal and lamb - 160°F
  • All poultry - minimum internal temperature of 165°F

Keep Hot Foods Hot and Cold Foods Cold

Before and throughout your serving time, hot foods should be kept at 140°F or warmer. Keep food hot in the oven by setting it to 200-250ºF. On the buffet table, you can keep hot foods hot with chafing dishes, slow cookers, and warming trays. Cold foods should be held at 40°F or colder in the refrigerator. Keep buffet foods cold by nesting dishes on bowls or trays of ice. Chilling is especially important for cream pies, cheesecake, eggnog and other dishes containing eggs, cheese and dairy products. Bacteria can multiply rapidly in these dairy-containing foods. Just remember the 2-hour rule: Don't leave perishables on a room-temperature buffet for more than 2 hours. It's also smart to replace empty platters rather than adding fresh food to a dish that already had food sitting in it.

Safe Leftovers

To enjoy leftovers safely, divide cooked foods into small, shallow containers to store in the refrigerator or freezer. Small containers encourage rapid, even cooling. Cut the turkey into small pieces; refrigerate the stuffing and turkey separately in shallow containers within 2 hours of cooking. Use leftover turkey and stuffing within 3-4 days or freeze these foods. Leftover turkey can be eaten cold, but when reheating leftovers, make sure they are hot and steaming. Hot leftovers should reach an internal temperature of 165°F before serving.

When preparing holiday meals, what food safety issues are the most important?

Volume of Food

The only difference between cooking most holiday meals and the meals cooked every day is the amount of food being prepared. The added volume can put a strain on your kitchen equipment. Make sure that the refrigerator does not get overcrowded. Refrigerators need open space to insure that cold air circulates freely. Likewise a jam-packed oven heats more slowly and less evenly than one that has lots of space for circulating air currents.

The amount of food being prepared can also take a toll on preparation surfaces. Ensure that work surfaces are clean to avoid cross-contamination, and plan food preparation over a few days so that everything does not have to be done in quick succession, which can lead to food safety problems.

Holiday Baking

The holidays are also time to enjoy baking gingerbread houses, cut-out cookies, and sweets of all kinds with family and friends. Just avoid licking the spoon or the mixing bowl if the batter contains uncooked eggs. Even grade A eggs with clean, uncracked shells can be contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis bacteria.

Safe Stuffing

Roasting stuffed poultry can pose food safety issues. If disease-causing bacteria are present in meat, most will be on the surface, including the skin and the walls of the internal cavity. When an unstuffed bird is roasted, high heat reaches all surfaces and kills the bacteria, but when the cavity is stuffed, heat cannot easily reach the internal walls or the center of the stuffing.

The safest method is to cook stuffing separately from the bird. The only thing that will be missing is the juices dripping from the meat into the stuffing. This can be remedied by stirring some drippings from the roasting pan into the stuffing after both are finished cooking. If you want to carve the roast at the table bursting with stuffing, simply spoon the stuffing into the cavity before presenting it.

If you insist on roasting stuffed poultry, make sure that the stuffing loosely fills the cavity. This will allow some oven heat to flow inside the bird and help the interior to reach a safe temperature. When taking the internal temperature of the roast, test the temperature of the stuffing as well. It needs to be above 165°F to be safe.

Are there any types of foods one should avoid serving on holiday buffet spreads?

As long as you follow safe food handling practices and keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, most foods are perfectly safe for holiday buffets. The only foods to be concerned about are those that may cause an allergic reaction in your guests.

The most common food allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. When serving these foods, alert your guests so that they can make smart food choices. It's also important to avoid moving serving utensils from one dish to another, which can cross-contaminate a non-allergenic food with an allergenic food.

What holiday food safety tips do you suggest for those interested in giving homemade gifts from their kitchens as gifts?

There are few gifts as heartwarming as those that come from the kitchen. To make sure that edible gifts are safe as well as delicious select items that do not require refrigeration. Sweet items, like jellies and jams, plain cakes (avoid icings and cream fillings), sturdy cookies, and non-creamy candies will stay safe for weeks without refrigeration. Spice rubs can be made in bulk and sealed in decorative bags or jars. Flavored vinegars, oils and mustards are also great kitchen gifts.

Love To Know Safety would like to thank authors Dave Joachim and Andy Schloss for taking time from their busy schedules to share these terrific holiday food safety tips.

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Holiday Food Safety Tips