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December 16, 2009 > Food Safety Tips for the Holiday Season

Food Safety Tips for the Holiday Season

During the holiday season, food takes center stage at parties, family gatherings, and office potlucks. These gatherings wouldn't be complete without the special foods we enjoy at this time of year. While you're shopping, preparing and serving those delectable seasonal dishes, don't forget to practice food safety.

During the holidays, the risk of foodborne illness can be overlooked. This is the time when people tend to cook with different ingredients, try unfamiliar recipes, travel with cooked food in the car and leave food out longer at buffets and potlucks.

"Although everyone should take steps to prevent foodborne illness, higher risk groups for serious illness include the very young, the very old, and those already sick or with weakened immune systems," says Lorie Roffelsen, registered dietitian with Washington Hospital's Food & Nutritional Services department. "They could have a more severe reaction or prolonged illness from exposure to spoiled, improperly cooked or contaminated foods. When you're entertaining during the holidays, you don't want to see any of your guests get sick or get sick yourself."

Here are some pointers to help you keep the food you serve and eat safe throughout the holidays and throughout the year.
Safe shopping

When you're buying produce, remember bacteria can grow in bruised, damaged or over-ripe items. So, pick produce carefully. If you're buying fresh-cut produce, choose only those items that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice.

When buying ingredients to make homemade eggnog, use pasteurized eggs or commercially made liquid pasteurized egg products. At the check-out counter, make sure raw meats, poultry and seafood are bagged separately from raw fruits and vegetables so there's no cross-contamination.

Food Preparation

Before and after handling food, wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds or the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. This is most important if you are handling raw meats, poultry and seafood. Keep the food preparation area and utensils clean, including counter tops, cutting boards, sponges, dishes and knives.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends washing all food preparation areas and utensils with hot water and soap between the preparation of raw meat, poultry and seafood and the preparation of produce that will not be cooked. Clean cutting boards and counter tops periodically with a kitchen sanitizer or a solution of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach and one quart of water. If you use plastic or other non-porous cutting boards, wash them in the dishwasher.

What's the right temperature?

Temperature is a key to keeping food safe. Refrigeration inhibits the growth of bacteria, although it may not stop it completely. Your refrigerator should be at 40 degrees F and your freezer at 0 degrees F. Check these temperatures occasionally. Leftovers should be discarded after two to three days if not eaten. If in doubt, throw them out!

Certain perishable fresh fruits and vegetables and all produce purchased pre-cut or peeled should be refrigerated within two hours after purchase. Also, be sure to refrigerate holiday foods like cream pies, cakes with whipped cream and cream cheese frostings and other creamy desserts, as well as cold pasta dishes with meat, poultry, seafood or dairy products, quiches and souffles.

When cooking or reheating foods, don't guess on when the food has reached the right temperature. Use a meat thermometer to be sure. See the table below for recommended internal cooking temperature goals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Holiday Food Item
Temperature Goal
Beef, veal, lamb, steaks, roasts
145 degrees F (for 15 seconds)
145 degrees F (for 15 seconds)
160 degrees F (for 15 seconds)
Ground meats
160 degrees F (for 15 seconds)
Egg dishes
160 degrees F (for 15 seconds)
Chicken, turkey, duck, goose
165 degrees F (for 15 seconds)
Casseroles, reheated left-overs or foods taken to a potluck
Source: USDA
165 degrees F (for 15 seconds)

On the table
Use the "2-hour rule" for potlucks, buffets and parties where food is left out for an extended period of time. That means, to avoid the growth of harmful bacteria, discard foods after they have been left out for more than two hours. (Hint: If you're at home, set your kitchen timer to remind you.) After two hours, either refrigerate the food, refresh the table with new foods or reheat hot dishes to a safe temperature (165 degrees F) for at least 15 seconds.

"Some of the traditional holiday foods that can breed bacteria at room temperature include: casseroles, cheeses, eggnog, dips, deviled eggs, salad dressings and other mayonnaise-based items, as well as meats. The rule of thumb for buffets is to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot," explains Roffelsen. "Festive time of cooking and sharing should not include sharing foodborne illness. If foodborne illness does occur, it can spoil an otherwise happy celebration."

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