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December 3, 2010 > Practice Proper Food Safety for a Healthy Holiday Season

Practice Proper Food Safety for a Healthy Holiday Season

Turkey, ham, eggnog, and pumpkin pie; food takes center stage during the holidays. Enjoy the dinners, parties, and potlucks this year without risking your health by following some simple food safety tips.

Some of that delicious food can carry bacteria that might make you sick if you don't take the necessary precautions. Proper food handling reduces your chances of coming in contact with the bacteria, which can cause foodborne illnesses that are often referred to as "food poisoning."

"A lot of food is prepared and served this time of year," said Lorie Roffelsen, a registered dietitian at Washington Hospital. "It's important to think about some of these things while preparing your holiday meal or party snacks."

Thousands of turkeys will be served between now and the end of the year. Like all raw meat, turkey carries bacteria. To avoid illness, turkey must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 ¡F, according to Roffelsen

"If you buy a frozen turkey, it has to be thawed properly," she said. "There are a few methods you can use."

She said the best way is to plan ahead so you can thaw the turkey in the refrigerator. With 24 hours needed for every four to five pounds, that method takes several days.

"You need to place the turkey in a pan or other container so the juice doesn't drip on other items in the refrigerator," she added. "Once thawed, the turkey can stay in the refrigerator for a day or two before you need to cook it."

A faster way to thaw the turkey is to submerge it in cold water. According to Roffelsen, you should leave the turkey wrapped in its packaging and change the water every 20 minutes.

"You can also microwave the turkey if you have a big enough microwave," she said. "Just follow the oven's directions for defrosting food. But you need to cook the turkey immediately after thawing it."

Avoid Cross-Contamination

According to Roffelsen, the bacteria from poultry and other raw meat can spread throughout your kitchen if you are not careful. It's important to avoid cross-contamination. Wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling raw meat and make sure utensils and dishes are always cleaned with hot soapy water, she said.

Keep raw meats, poultry, and seafood and their juices away from other foods. Designate one cutting board for meats and one for fruits and vegetables if possible. Always wash cutting boards with hot soapy water after using them.

Roffelsen recommends cooking stuffing separately in a baking dish. But if you must stuff the turkey, make sure you cook it immediately after stuffing it and remove the stuffing when you pull it out of the oven.

"Don't leave any extra turkey, stuffing, or other leftovers out at room temperature for more than two hours after the meal," she said. "Store the turkey in shallow containers and put them in the refrigerator or freezer."

Leftover turkey, stuffing, and gravy can stay in the refrigerator for three or four days before it needs to be eaten, according to Roffelsen. It can stay in the freezer for three or four months, she added.

Don't Lick the Bowl

Eggs are another popular holiday food item that can be problematic if not handled properly. Eating eggs that aren't thoroughly cooked can make you sick.

"If you want to eat the raw cookie dough or batter, you need to use pasteurized eggs," Roffelsen said. "Otherwise, don't lick the bowl."

Eggs should be cooked until the yolk is firm and egg dishes like quiche or strata should be cooked to a temperature of 160 ¡F, according to Roffelsen. Even eggnog made with unpasteurized eggs should be cooked on the stovetop to a temperature of 160 ¡F before being chilled. Utensils, equipment, and work surfaces used to prepare egg dishes should all be thoroughly cleaned with hot soapy water, she added.

Dishes that contain eggs also can't be left out at room temperature for too long. "When setting out holiday spreads or buffets, you have to pay attention to how long the food sits out, particularly eggs and other protein foods like meat and cheese," Roffelsen said. "The general rule is that food should sit at room temperature no more than two hours."

Food can stay out longer if you keep hot food hot and cold food cold, she added. Roffelsen recommends keeping hot food at 140 ¡F or hotter and cold food at 40 ¡F or colder.

"The holidays are a great time to enjoy festive meals and gatherings," Roffelsen said. "Just make sure you follow proper food safety guidelines For more information, visit

Learn More at Upcoming Seminar

A team of Washington Hospital registered dietitians will share valuable ways to eat healthy this holiday season at a special Health and Wellness seminar on Tuesday, December 7. Focusing on What is Important During the Holidays will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditoriums located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont. Register online at

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