14 Holiday Food Safety Tips

Gabrielle Applebury
Christmas dinner on a sideboard in a dining room

The holidays are often a time when many types of delicious dishes and desserts are made within a small timeframe. Ensuring that your meals are prepared in healthy and clean ways can help you avoid food contamination and unsanitary prep conditions that may lead to food related illnesses. Dave Joachim and Andy Schloss, authors of The Science of Good Food, share their expertise about holiday food safety so you can enjoy the holidays with your friends and family.

Food Safety Tips for Holiday Cooking

Food safety related issues are typically heightened around the holidays when many dishes are prepared in the same setting and leftovers are usually abundant. Schloss and Joachim note that, "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."

Staying Clean

One of the most important aspects of cooking and baking is doing so on properly sanitized surfaces and being sure to wash your hands appropriately. Schloss and Joachim say that when it comes to washing your hands, do so with, "hot, soapy water." When using cooking utensils or baking supplies, "wash cutting boards, utensils, and work surfaces with a weak bleach and water solution." Be sure to rinse cooking supplies thoroughly afterwards with water.

Avoid Cross Contamination

Cooking tons of different types of foods is synonymous with the holidays. With that comes more risk for cross contaminating your ingredients and meals. To avoid doing so, Schloss and Joachim note to, "Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs away from foods that will be eaten raw". They also mention to, "Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw and cooked food." This way your chance of cross contamination significantly decreases and you can focus on making healthy meals that are prepared properly.

Be Mindful of Food Temperatures

Cooking raw meats and uncooked eggs properly can decrease your chance of a food borne illness significantly. Schloss and Joachim mention to, "Cook foods, especially protein foods, to safe internal temperatures of at least 165°F." They also note to, "Keep hot foods hot (above 140°F) and cold foods cold (below 40°F)." If you've accidentally left something out on the counter that requires cooking or baking and you're unsure if it's safe to eat or continue using, it's best to err on the side of caution and properly dispose of the ingredient.

Prepping Holiday Meals and Baked Goods

Before beginning the cooking or baking, be sure that you have everything you need to ensure a safe and healthy food environment.

Preparing traditional turkey

Volume of Food

One of the biggest concerns when it comes to holiday cooking and baking is food storage related issues. If you don't have enough fridge space, think about asking a neighbor or friend for some storage assistance. You can also invest in a mini fridge to help make things a bit easier for you. Schloss and Joachim say that, "Refrigerators need open space to ensure that cold air circulates freely." They also mentioned that, "... a jam-packed oven heats more slowly and less evenly than one that has lots of space for circulating air currents." Be sure to reach out and ask a friend or family member for some assistance if you feel like your kitchen, fridge, or oven doesn't have enough space to handle the amount of cooking you intend on doing.

Holiday Baking

The holiday celebrations typically include an abundance of baked goods. To ensure your safety Schloss and Joachim note to, "...avoid licking the spoon or the mixing bowl if the batter contains uncooked eggs." This goes for any type of egg, even though it can be tempting to have a quick taste of batter.

Preparing homemade chocolate dough

Safe Stuffed Poultry

Roasting stuffed poultry can be tricky in terms of food safety. Joachim and Schloss note that, "If disease-causing bacteria are present in meat, most will be on the surface, including the skin and the walls of the internal cavity." They suggest cooking the stuffing and the meat separately if possible. They suggest using the meat drippings after it has been cooked to flavor the stuffing, or simply spooning the stuffing into the cooked meat after it comes out of the oven fully cooked. If you do cook the stuffing within the meat Schloss and Joachim say, "When taking the internal temperature of the roast, test the temperature of the stuffing." The temperature should be above 165°F to be safe.

Cooking and Serving Food Safety

Undercooked or under-baked dishes can pose a health risk to you and your guests. Serving food must also be done at appropriate temperatures to avoid risky ingredients sitting out for too long.

Safe Cooking and Serving Temperatures

An unsafe food temperature can end up becoming a huge mishap leading to food related illnesses. Schloss and Joachim note that, "If you are cooking foods ahead of time for your party, be sure to cook foods thoroughly to safe minimum internal temperatures." Typically, if you are following a recipe, it will state the proper food temperature that the food thermometer should read prior to serving. You should also go with your gut and ask someone else for their opinion if you are unsure. If something seems raw or undone, it could probably use a bit longer in terms of cooking time.

Use a Food Thermometer

Food thermometers are incredibly useful tools to have in the kitchen, especially when prepping holiday meals. Schloss and Joachim say when cooking a turkey, the "whole turkey is safe cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F throughout the bird." Be sure to, "Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast (without touching bone)."

Woman measuring temperature of whole roasted turkey with meat thermometer

Recommended Temperatures

Schloss and Joachim mentioned other temperatures to keep in mind for food safety. These 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
  • Stuffing should reach 165 degrees F

Keep Hot Foods Hot

To lower your risk of food related illnesses or issues, keep in mind the rule that hot food should be kept hot and cold foods should be chilled. Hot foods should be kept at 140°F or warmer according to Schloss and Joachim. Hot foods can be warmed in the oven, "by setting it to 200-250ºF." If you are serving foods buffet style, you can think about using slow cookers or warming trays to keep your meals at the perfect temperatures.

Keep Cold Foods Cold

Cold foods should be kept in the fridge, "at 40°F or colder" according to Schloss and Joachim. You can serve cold dishes immediately after pulling them out of the fridge, or using platters kept on ice. Due to bacterial concerns, Joachim and Schloss note that, "Chilling is especially important for cream pies, cheesecake, eggnog and other dishes containing eggs, cheese and dairy products." They also state that it's important not to, "...leave perishables on a room-temperature buffet for more than 2 hours."

Save Leftovers Safely

Usually after a big holiday meal, there are plenty of leftovers. If you are still left with a fair amount of food Schloss and Joachim note to, "...divide cooked foods into small, shallow containers to store in the refrigerator or freezer." They say that this makes it easier for the meals to cool quickly and keep better. When it comes to turkey or other meats, it's best to cut into small slices and keep in the fridge or freezer in labelled containers. If holiday food is kept in the fridge, be sure to eat, "within 3-4 days" according to Schloss and Jaochim. When reheating leftovers in the oven or microwave, they should be hot throughout and somewhat steamy.

Woman placing container with frozen vegetables in freezer

Allergy Concerns for Guests

Schloss and Joachim mention that, "The most common food allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish." With this in mind, be sure to inform guests if you plan on serving anything that could be a potential allergen. Likewise, if you have food allergies and are heading to a holiday party, be sure to let your host or hostess know in a kind way and ahead of time. Schloss and Joachim also say, "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."

Safely Giving Homemade Gifts

Making a homemade gift is thoughtful and can make the gift receiver feel as if you went the extra mile for them. Think about giving sweets such as jellies and jams, plain cakes, sturdy cookies, and non-creamy candies because they will keep for several weeks at room temperature. They also mention, "Spice rubs can be made in bulk and sealed in decorative bags or jars."

Planning Holiday Meals and Desserts

Using food safety best practices can help ensure that your holiday party and meals are successful. As long as you are mindful of cooking and serving temperatures, as well as healthy food storage, your meals and desserts should work out as planned.

14 Holiday Food Safety Tips