Hi everyone! It’s hard to believe that Christmas is already here! I’m sure most of you have that Christmas dinner menu all planned and are ready to start cooking. This time of year is exciting with giving gifts, baking sweet treats, decorating, and catching up with friends and family. With that being said, food safety is likely the last thing on your mind when prepping a Christmas dinner, but it is a VERY important step in the food preparation process to help keep friends and family safe from food-borne illness. Especially because there are likely guests who are more vulnerable to contracting a food-borne illness than others, such as elderly, young children, pregnant women, or other individuals with a compromised immune systems.
With more dishes than room in the refrigerator and oven, keeping food at safe temperatures can be tricky. Follow these tips to help keep you and your guests safe from food-borne illness this holiday season, and keep in mind that these tips apply to any large gathering, not just Christmas.
• Wash your hands – This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprise at the number of people who do not do this properly. Washing your hand is the easiest way to prevent the spread of bacteria. Use soap and wash hands under running water for 20 seconds – to help judge the time, sing “Happy Birthday” through two times. Wash your hands before, during, and after preparing food; after handling raw meat, eggs, or unwashed vegetables; before eating or drinking; after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; after using the restroom; after touching an animal; and after touching garbage. To keep it simple, always wash your hands between moving from one task to another.
• Defrost your turkey properly – If you buy a frozen turkey, allow approximately 24 hours per 5 pounds to completely defrost the turkey in the refrigerator. For example, if you have a 20-pound turkey, allow ~4 days for it to thaw. DO NOT defrost your turkey on the counter or soaking in warm water! You can, however, defrost your turkey in a cold-water bath as long as you change the water every 30 minutes which is very time consuming and wasteful of water. Or if you would like to make things easier, buy a fresh unfrozen turkey.
• Wash all produce before handling – Yet another easy step we like to forget. Wash all fruits and vegetables, even if you are peeling the skin off. This one is important, especially with all of the recent E. coli outbreaks related to produce. This even includes prepackaged produce such as green and carrots.
• Ensure foods are cooked to the appropriate temperature – Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meats and other hot foods. Make sure turkey, dressing, and other side dishes are cooked to at least 165 degrees F and remain above 140 degrees F during service. If you are stuffing your turkey, make sure the stuffing inside is also at 165 degrees F. Cold foods, such as fruit salad, should be kept below 40 degrees F. The “danger zone”, the zone bacteria is most likely to rapidly grow, is 41-139 degrees F, so it is important to keep foods above or below this temperature zone. To simplify, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
• Store leftovers in a timely manner – This one is a tough one because no one wants to get up from socializing and do the dirty work. However, this step is a big one when keeping food out of the danger zone. When storing leftovers, remember the 2-2-4 rule. Put food in the refrigerator 2 hours after preparation, store leftovers in a 2-inch-deep container, and toss leftovers after 4 days.
• Reheat leftovers properly – This is another one where the food thermometer becomes handy. When reheating leftovers, make sure it is reheated to 165 degrees F to ensure all of the bacteria is killed. Microwaves generally do not reheat foods evenly, so make sure to stop and stir food up every so often for food to reheat more evenly and to ensure all of the leftovers are at the appropriate temperature.
I hope these tips help keep you and your guests happy and safe this holiday season! Merry Christmas!