9 tips to avoid a food safety disaster at your holiday meal

foodYou’ve prepared a beautiful spread of meats, cheeses, fruits and pastries to delight your holiday guests. You are anxiously awaiting the arrival of all of your closest friends and relatives and have put your delicious dishes out an hour before guests arrive. While your strategically placed fruit plate looks lovely, it could be a potential danger for guests who arrive late to the party.

Many people preparing holiday meals don’t know the rules of food safety, which could spell disaster for the gastrointestinal tracts of their guests. Scott & White nutrition consultant and food safety expert, Raynelle Shelley, MS, RD, LD, CDE, offers some helpful tips to keep your tasty treats safe this holiday season.

1. Wash Your Hands and Cooking Surfaces Thoroughly

Before touching any food or cooking utensils, your hands must be washed with hot soapy water. This also goes for any cutting board you might be using to cut up vegetables or meat. And as you finish with a cutting board, you should wash it with hot soapy water as well. And never use the same cutting surface for meats and vegetables.

2. Keep Counters Clean

After preparing food on the counter, it is a good idea to wipe the counters with a mixture of hot water and dishwashing detergent or use a disinfectant like a Clorox wipe. Shelley keeps these under the sink at her home so they are readily available when she is preparing a meal.

3. Always Check the Temperature of Meats

Meats like beef and poultry can carry bacteria, and the only way to rid these foods of potentially dangerous bacteria is to heat them to the right temperature. If you are preparing a whole piece of meat—whether it’s beef, lamb or pork—you will need to heat your meat to 145 degrees to kill bacteria. And the meat needs to retain that temperature for three minutes before it is considered safe.

Chicken and turkey are even more dangerous if they are not heated to the correct temperature. Poultry must reach 165 degrees in order to be safe for consumption.

4. Know How Long Your Food Has Been Sitting Out

No food should be left out for more than two hours. But it is especially important to follow this rule with fruits, meats and cheeses. And if your grandmother’s secret recipe fruit salad has been sitting out more than two hours, then it shouldn’t go back in the fridge. It should be tossed out.

5. Never Put Hot Food in the Refrigerator

You don’t want to stick hot food in the refrigerator because you will risk elevating the temperature of everything around it. Instead, put your leftovers in smaller containers and let them sit in an ice bath for a few minutes until they are cool. Then it is safe to put them in the refrigerator and save them for later.

6. Only Keep Leftovers for a Few Days

Leftovers—if they have been packaged and cooled properly before they enter the fridge—are good for three to four days. This time frame is especially important for high-risk family members who might be consuming these foods because some bacteria can live and grow in the refrigerator. People at high-risk of getting sick from poorly prepared or stored leftovers are the elderly, children, pregnant women, someone who has just been sick or someone with a compromised immune system.

7. Use Pasteurized Egg Products

Cookies are a holiday staple, but if you aren’t using pasteurized eggs in your cookie dough, then tasting the uncooked batter might be dangerous. Raw eggs can potentially carry salmonella, which could make you and your loved ones sick. If you’re going to be making a baked egg dish, egg nog or cookie dough, try using pasteurized egg products like Egg Beaters, so you won’t have to worry about the dangers of raw eggs. However, the dietitian said it’s really never a good idea to eat raw cookie dough, no matter how delicious it looks.

8. Date and Label Frozen Foods

Many families put their leftovers in the freezer to keep them good longer. While freezing food can keep it fresh longer, as soon as you start thawing it out, the clock starts again. If you had a container of leftover turkey in your fridge for two days and then put it in the freezer, time doesn’t start over. As soon as you thaw out the meat it is only good for two days.

9. Report Food Poisoning Incidents

If your holiday meal took place at a restaurant and everyone who ate the stuffing ended the night with vomiting and diarrhea, then it is your responsibility to report this incident to your healthcare provider. The eatery may not know there was a problem unless you report it.

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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9 tips to avoid a food safety disaster at your holiday meal