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12 tips for keeping your food safe this holiday season

‘Tis the season for gathering with family and friends…and food! Practicing food safety in your kitchen while preparing holiday meals is a must to keep the holidays happy and safe for everyone. 

The food safety experts at Ehrlich’s sister company, Steritech, remind you to keep these 12 food safety tips in mind while prepping for this season’s celebrations.

Holiday food safety tips table

1. Turkey thawing takes time

The safest way to thaw your turkey involves using your refrigerator. Be sure to plan ahead because safe thawing takes time. For every five pounds of frozen turkey, allow 24 hours of thawing time. For example, if you are preparing a 15-pound turkey, you’re going to need three days to safely thaw it. 

Place the turkey in a tray or container on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. The tray or container should be deep enough to collect any draining fluids to prevent contamination of other foods in your refrigerator. Use caution not to spill the contents when removing it from the refrigerator.

You may be wondering why you can’t just thaw your turkey by sitting it on the counter. Doing so creates the perfect opportunity for bacteria growth. When you leave an item out on a counter to thaw, the outside layers become warm much faster than the inside layers. That temperature change allows bacteria on the turkey to grow, and that bacteria can make people sick.

Turkey cutting

2. The food safety rules for leftovers

Once we wake up from our food coma, many of us head to the refrigerator for that next-day turkey sandwich – but leftovers have their own set of food safety rules.

Proper cooling and storing is essential when it comes to leftovers. Leftovers must be cooled to below 70°F (21°C) within 2 hours, and then to 41°F (5°C) or below within an additional four hours.

If you have a lot left over, divide foods into smaller portions, such as stuffing, sweet potatoes, or green bean casserole. Using smaller, shallow containers allows for quicker cooling. Avoid tightly covering containers until food is fully cooled.

When reheating, make sure that the food reaches a temperature of 165°F (74°C), and reheat the food only once. If you can’t eat leftovers in three to four days, freeze them.

Turkey stuffing and cranberry sauce

3. Wash all produce

Though often overlooked, produce is rising as a top food group associated with foodborne illness outbreaks. Though you can’t tell if produce is contaminated just by looking at it, there are ways you can reduce the chances of transmitting foodborne illness. Wash all produce, even packaged produce that indicates it has been pre-washed, before you cut or serve it.

Because cooking is required to kill many foodborne pathogens, raw produce (salads, fresh veggie trays, etc.) can still carry bacteria and viruses, even after it has been washed. Additionally, cutting through produce, like melons, can also transfer bacteria from the exterior surface to the interior flesh. Be aware of produce recalls or foodborne illness outbreaks before you shop.

Woman carrying basket full of vegetables

4. Don't cross-contaminate!

Cross-contamination can easily take place in the hustle and bustle of holiday food preparation. It occurs when bacteria from one food product or surface transfers to an uncontaminated food product or surface. Your best chance at avoiding it is by thoroughly cleaning kitchen counters, cutting boards, utensils and your hands in between tasks. 

For example, if you’ve just cut meat or poultry with a knife, it is very important that the knife, cutting boards, and any surfaces that the meat or poultry touched are properly washed and sanitized before using for other tasks. You may even consider using separate cutting boards and preparation areas for raw meat and ready-to-eat foods, such as produce.

5. Say “no” to dough and batter

You’d probably be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t licked a beater or spatula covered in batter. We’ve long been warned that uncooked eggs in batter contain dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, but now new advice from regulatory agencies suggests that uncooked flour can also harbor pathogens, such as E. coli. For this reason, it’s best to avoid the temptation of taste-testing the dough and batter of sweet treats, such as cookies, pies, and cakes. When it comes to sweets, stick to the cooked ones.


6. Is stuffing dangerous?

The topic of stuffing is a surprisingly polarized one. Its very name suggests cooking it inside the turkey, and many people prepare it this way. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service advises consumers to cook stuffing in a separate dish for food safety purposes. Cooking stuffing inside the bird makes it vulnerable to dangerous bacteria that may naturally be present in the turkey, such as Salmonella. If it doesn’t get cooked properly, stuffing can become a vehicle for foodborne illness.

If you maintain that stuffing MUST be cooked inside the turkey, be sure to be cognizant of temperature. Use a clean meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the stuffing before removing your turkey from the oven. A reading from the center of the stuffing should be at least 165°F (74°C).

7. Safe temperatures for cooking your holiday meat

Often, holiday celebrations include special beverages only available at this time of year. Said beverages often include products that can come pasteurized or unpasteurized. Unpasteurized products carry with them a food safety risk, as

A thoroughly cooked turkey should be roasted at a temperature of 325°F (163°C) or higher.

Before removing your bird from the oven, you should ensure that the internal temperature of the turkey is at least 165°F (74°C) by using a meat thermometer. Insert the thermometer into several different spots, including the thigh (the thickest part of the turkey), to ensure all parts of the bird have reached this temperature. Avoid touching the bone with the thermometer, as this could give an inaccurate temperature reading.

Checking turkeys temperature

Turkeys are not the only proteins that have recommended internal temperatures to ensure they are cooked thoroughly. Remember, you can’t tell if meat is safely cooked simply by looking at it. Insert a meat thermometer at the densest part of the meat (avoid touching the bone) and check for the following temperatures:

  • Turkey/Poultry - 165°F (74°C)
  • Beef Roast - 145°F (63°C)
  • Fresh Ham - 160°F (71°C)
  • Fully-cooked Ham - 140°F (60°C)

8. Beware of allergies

Depending on their severity, food allergies can be life-threatening. It is especially important to be allergy aware when preparing food for a large group of people. Ask your guests ahead of time if they have any food allergies and take them into consideration in your planning. If possible, avoid using those foods at all in the kitchen. If not, take precautions to protect other foods from cross-contamination with allergens. Don’t use the same utensils, mixing bowls, etc. before thoroughly washing and sanitizing those tools first. If you are using prepared mixes or foods, remember to read the label thoroughly.

The most common food allergens are:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Wheat

9. Seasonal beverages…even drinks have dangers

Often, holiday celebrations include special beverages only available at this time of year. Said beverages often include products that can come pasteurized or unpasteurized. Unpasteurized products carry with them a food safety risk, as pasteurization kills pathogens that are present in foods or that develop in processing. Purchase eggnog, apple cider, and other seasonal beverages labeled PASTEURIZED to avoid potentially harmful pathogens.

10. Be aware of food recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks

Food recalls and foodborne illnesses can strike at any time. Pay attention to news reports and government issued recalls and updates. Go to FoodSafety.gov for the latest information.

11. Personal health

When hosting larger gatherings, put your guests at ease by providing hand sanitizer, masks, and serving utensils to avoid hand to food contact. Having some of these items readily available may help to prevent the transmission of viruses to others.

People wearing face mask

12. Travel safely

Lastly, if you’re traveling with food, it’s important to keep hot food hot and cold food cold. When food temperatures fluctuate, bacteria can grow and make people sick. Use insulated carriers to help keep food temperatures consistent.

From all of us at Ehrlich, we wish you a happy and healthy holiday season!

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