Food Safety for the Holidays

Richard Willis

Celebrations during the holiday season provides ample opportunities to try specialty foods from around the world as well as some traditional favorites. It also is that special time of year that food safety and sanitation practices need to be ever vigilant thwarting the menace of food borne illness or even worse food borne outbreak.

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. Wash with hot water and soap, for approximately 20 seconds.

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 and do not use the same ice for cooling for consumption.

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 are destroyed. 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 ideal for bacterial growth: store leftovers shallow containers make sure the refrigerator is not over-packed and there is plenty of air circulating around the food, so it can be properly cooled. Try 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.  

Choosing a frozen turkey requires that you, allocate 24 hours per 5 pounds to defrost in the refrigerator, and whatever you do, don’t defrost the bird on the kitchen counter. Considering drought conditions in certain areas of the country, defrosting the bird using frequently changed cold water seems wasteful. But it is safe, as long as you change the cold-water bath every 30 minutes.

Wash all fresh produce.

Wash even prepackaged greens, to minimize potential bacterial contamination. Make sure kitchen counters, cleaning pads, cutting boards, and knives are all scrubbed. Remember to wash rinse and sanitize after every four hours of continual use.

Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees.

Filling a plate of food and popping it into the microwave for a few minutes may seem safe enough. Microwaves heat in an uneven manner, allow the covered food rest for a minute or two to let the heat destroy any pathogens, then check the temperature all around the dish.

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; it’s important to prevent anyone from picking at the food while it is being prepared, try serving simple appetizers to give guest something to nibble on until the meal is ready.

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