Spoiled Food, Spoiled Holidays: Tips for Avoiding Foodborne Illness

To help you make sure your holiday celebrations take place in the home and not the emergency room, we’ve assembled some simple tips you can follow during the festive season. 
To help you make sure your holiday celebrations take place in the home and not the emergency room, we’ve assembled some simple tips you can follow during the festive season. 

Food plays a central role in many holiday traditions. With visits from friends and extended family, dining room tables and kitchen facilities will strain under the weight of the diverse dishes served over the next few weeks. 

However, the more food we have to prepare, the greater the possibility of foodborne illness or injuries related to food preparation making an unwelcome holiday appearance. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illness each year. Of that number, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. The most common culprit is campylobacter, bacteria that derive from poultry and cause infection of the intestinal tract, followed by salmonella and Cyclospora.  

To help you make sure your holiday celebrations take place in the home and not the emergency room, we’ve assembled some simple tips you can follow during the festive season. 

Preparing and Cooking a Turkey 

Turkey is central to many holiday meals, and everyone thinks they know how to prepare it. However, a badly cooked turkey is a recipe for holiday disaster. Here are a few tips from the U.S. Food and Safety Inspection Service to help you prepare a tasty-but-safe holiday bird. 

  • Fresh? Frozen? Fresh pre-stuffed? Frozen pre-stuffed? There are a lot of options, and they each require different approaches to preparation and cooking. A fresh turkey should be purchased one to two days before you plan to use it and stored in the refrigerator immediately after purchase. Frozen turkeys can stay in the freezer indefinitely but are best used within a year. 
  • Fresh pre-stuffed turkeys are a high risk for food poisoning, since bacteria can grow quickly in stuffing in contact with raw meat. 
  • Frozen pre-stuffed turkeys should display a mark from an accredited inspection agency demonstrating that they have been prepared under controlled conditions. They should be cooked from frozen, not thawed, according to the directions provided on the label. 
  • When it comes to stuffing, the safest approach is cooking it outside the turkey in a casserole dish to ensure bacteria from the raw meat doesn’t hide inside. If you decide to stuff the turkey, pack the cavities loosely and use a thermometer to ensure the temperature of the stuffing has reached 165F. 
  • You can thaw a turkey in the refrigerator, in cold water or in a microwave oven. When thawing in the refrigerator, allow it to sit for 24 hours for every four-to-five pounds of weight. In cold water, allow about 30 minutes per pound. If you use the microwave, refer to the microwave manual to determine minutes per pound. 
  • When cooking a turkey, the oven should have a minimum temperature of 325F. While you can cook a turkey from frozen, you should allow for at least 50 percent longer cooking time. The internal temperature of the turkey must reach 165F, which you can measure using a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the breast and in the innermost part of the thigh and wing.  
  • Maybe you want to shake up tradition and try deep frying a turkey. This is a delicious alternative to using an oven, but you need to take more precautions. You can’t simply throw the turkey into the deep fryer and walk away as you can with an oven. Deep frying a turkey should never take place inside the house. It might be cold outside, but the deep fryer should be in an open area far away from anything flammable, including a wooden deck. You should have both a fire extinguisher and PPE like gloves and goggles to protect you from spattering oil. Finally, never deep fry a frozen turkey, as the moisture will cause the oil to boil violently, which could spill over and cause a fire or serious injuries. 

Holiday Buffets 

Many people opt for a self-serve approach for holidays meals. While this can alleviate the pressure on hosts to act as servers, it can also create conditions in which food safety is compromised. Here are a few suggestions for making sure safe food is the only item on the menu at your holiday buffet. 

  • You might be tempted to put giant piles of food on the table and simply let everyone help themselves and return for more as often as they like. However, bacteria can start to grow on prepared food that has been left out after two hours or as little as one hour in hot weather. Consider putting out smaller dishes and replenishing them as needed while keeping hot food in a warm oven and cold food, such as dairy products, in the refrigerator. Hot food should have a minimum internal temperature of 140F, while cold food should be stored at 40F or colder until serving. 
  • Traditional family recipes might inspire holiday nostalgia, but they can also cause food-borne illness if you don’t update them appropriately. Older recipes for such dishes as custard, eggnog and salad dressing often call for raw or undercooked eggs, which raises the risk of food poisoning. Consider updating traditional recipes to modern standards to ensure food safety. 
  • It’s unpleasant to consider, but not all bacteria originate in food. Some of it will come from people’s hands. Provide ample soap or wipes for people to wash their hands. Also, avoid adding new food to food that’s been sat out for a while. Remember that the clock on the two-hour limit is ticking as soon as the food is served. If you put fresh food on top of old in the serving dish, the older food will sit longer at the bottom of the bowl before it gets eaten, allowing bacteria to grow. 

Leftovers 

For some people, days and days of leftovers are even better than the traditional meal. Follow these tips to keep those post-holiday turkey sandwiches safe. 

  • If your holiday meal has been left out for more than two hours, it’s not leftovers: it’s compost. When the meal is finished, refrigerate unfinished food immediately before it reaches the temperature where bacteria can multiply quickly, which is between 40F and 140F. Some foods, like rice and potatoes, can cause food poisoning if they have been left out longer than two hours, even if reheated in a microwave. 
  • Refrigerated leftovers are good for four days before they should be discarded. If you need more time, throw them in the freezer, where they can remain indefinitely until needed. 
  • Reheated food should reach an internal temperature of 165F. If you’re reheating sauce or gravy, bring it to a boil to ensure it’s reached a safe temperature. 
  • Microwaves often have cold spots, so make sure the food is loosely packed and use a microwave-safe container with a lid for even heat distribution.  

There is a lot to take care of over the holidays, such as gifts, family events, traveling, school holidays and much more. With time in limited supply, it’s tempting to multitask or take shortcuts with food preparation, sometimes with disastrous consequences. With a bit of planning and situational awareness in the kitchen, you can ensure that your holidays remain merry and free of the grinch of foodborne illness. 

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