12 Days of Food Safety

Whether you’re serving three French hens, two turtle cheesecakes or a partridge and a pear cobbler, it’s important to pay attention to food safety. Holidays are a time for family gatherings and special meals, which means it also presents risk of cross-contamination or foodborne illness. But if you follow best food safety practices, like the 12 tips below, your holiday meals should remain safe and delicious.

1. Follow safe food handling tips when grocery shopping.

  • Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from other foods in your cart. Ask the cashier to place your raw meat, poultry and seafood items in a separate bag.
  • If you use reusable bags, put meat, poultry and seafood items in a designated reusable bag separate from other items, and be sure to wash the bags afterwards.
  • Wrapping raw items in additional plastic bags can further prevent drippings from contaminating other items.
  • Buy cold foods last. If cold grocery items are allowed to stay at room temperature for longer than two hours, they can start growing bacteria that cause food poisoning. By purchasing your cold items last, you don’t have to worry about taking extra time it may take you to find special holiday treats in the store.

2. Keep your refrigerator clean, organized and 40 degrees F. Just as you have a plan for storing your holiday gifts when you get home, you should have a system for storing your food.

  • Immediately refrigerate cold items to ensure they stay out of the “Danger Zone” of 40-140°F where bacteria can grow rapidly.
  • Raw meat, poultry and seafood should be in a sealed container or wrapped securely to prevent raw juices from contaminating other foods.
  • The best way to store eggs is to keep them in the carton so you can check the Julian date or expiration date, and store them in the coldest part of the refrigerator (not the door, where temperatures fluctuate when it is opened and closed).
  • Other refrigerator strategies suggest avoiding “overpacking” so cold air can circulate, wiping up spills immediately, storing refrigerated foods covered, checking expiration dates on foods and cleaning the fridge out frequently.
  • Here are some other ideas on refrigerator organization to maintain food safety and quality and reduce food waste.

3. Avoid cross contamination. Cross-contamination is the physical movement or transfer of harmful bacteria from one person, object or place to another. Preventing cross-contamination is a key factor in preventing foodborne illness.

  • To help prevent cross-contamination, it’s important to separate foods — especially raw meat, seafood, eggs and poultry — from other foods.
  • Wash hands, utensils and surfaces with warm, soapy water before and after handling raw eggs, meat or poultry.

4. Wash hands and surfaces thoroughly before preparing food. Illness-causing bacteria can survive in many places around your kitchen, including your hands, utensils and cutting boards. Unless you wash your hands, utensils and surfaces the right way, you could spread bacteria to your food and your family.

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and running water, scrubbing the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. If you need a timer, hum “Happy Birthday” from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse under running water and dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry.
  • You should wash your hands before eating food; before, during and after preparing food; before and after treating a cut or wound; before and after caring for someone who is sick; after handling uncooked eggs, or raw meat, poultry, seafood or their juices; after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; after touching an animal or animal waste; after touching garbage; or after using the toilet.
  • Bacteria can be spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils and counter tops. To prevent this, wash surfaces and utensils after each use.
  • Also, you should wash fruits and vegetables, but not meat, poultry or eggs. Bacteria can spread from the outside to the inside of fruits and veggies, which is why they must be washed. However, washing raw meat and poultry can actually help bacteria spread, because their juices may splash onto and contaminate your sink and countertops. All commercial eggs are washed before sale. Any extra handling of the eggs, such as washing, may actually increase the risk of cross-contamination, especially if the shell becomes cracked.

5. Safely thaw, prepare and cook meat and poultry.

  • If you’re having meat or poultry for Christmas, keep frozen until you’re ready to thaw, — either in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave.
  • Many people enjoy turkey for the holidays and this bird can be roasted, fried or grilled, but make sure you follow the recommended handling and preparation tips.
  • Preparation and cooking recommendations vary by type of meat or poultry, as well as cut and weight, so do your homework on preparation.

6. Cook food to the right temperature, using a food thermometer. You can’t tell if meat is safely cooked by looking at it. Any cooked, uncured red meats, can be pink even when the meat has reached a safe internal temperature.

  • Use this chart or this article and a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat.
  • After you remove meat from the grill, oven or other heat source, allow it to rest for a specified period of time, during which time the temperature will remain constant or continue to rise, destroying harmful germs.

7. Be safe when baking for the holidays.

8. Keep your eggnog safe.

9. Use perishable food in the fridge before leaving town.

  • If you are traveling for several days over the holidays, check your refrigerator for foods that may expire before you return.
  • For some foods that may expire before you return, you could hard-cook eggs and use them on salads and sandwiches, use cartons of yogurt nearing the end of their recommended use in smoothies and toss together chopped fruit with raisins and nuts.

10. Keep food safe as you travel. Many people bring food as they travel to holiday dinners, but it’s important to remember some food safety tips when traveling.

  • Avoid leaving perishable foods at room temperature longer than two hours. People traveling a long distance might bring non-perishables like rolls, breads and cookies.
  • When traveling with food, keep hot foods hot (140 degrees F or higher) and keep cold foods in a cooler with ice or freezer packs or an insulated container with a cold pack so they remain at 40 degrees F or lower.

11. Serve up safe buffets. If you’re planning a buffet at home and are not sure how quickly the food will be eaten, keep buffet serving portions small.

  • Divide cooked foods into shallow containers in the freezer or refrigerator.
  • Prepare a small number of platters and dishes ahead of time, and replace serving dishes with fresh ones throughout the party.
  • Store cold back-up dishes in the oven set at 200-350 degrees F prior to serving. Hot foods should be kept hot (140 degrees F or warmer) and cold foods cold (40 degrees F or cooler).
  • Replace nearly-empty serving dishes with freshly-filled ones and discard any perishables left out at room temperature for more than two hours, unless you’re keeping it hot or cold (watch the clock with leftovers, too).

12. Safely handle leftovers. Use the 2-2-4 rule on leftovers.

  • Make sure you refrigerate or freeze food within 2 hours of cooking.
  • Store leftovers in shallow dishes around 2 inches deep.
  • Eat leftovers within 4 days and make sure you reheat to 165 degrees F before eating.

Image: “Thanksgiving Day Turkey” by Dianne Rosete is licensed under CC BY ND 2.0.