Have you ever had the stomach flu a day or two after a big holiday meal? Chances are it wasn’t a flu bug but rather a case of food poisoning. Food poisoning affects 76 million people a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is often mistaken for the flu.
Holidays are an especially challenging time to avoid food poisoning because cooks have more food than usual to manage, more hands are in the kitchen cooking, more home-cooked foods are consumed, less room is available in the refrigerator and leftovers often are handled improperly. In addition, holiday guests often include those that are more vulnerable to food poisoning. This includes the elderly, the very young, pregnant women and those with immune deficiencies.
This holiday season, take special care to make sure you, your family and your guests are all safe from food contamination. Following are some top food safety tips.
Plan ahead. Make sure you have enough refrigerator space for everything that needs to be kept cold. If you don’t, it’s OK to use coolers — just make sure to use clean ice and keep the coolers drained as the ice melts. Although tempting, storing food outside or on the porch isn’t recommended. Outside temperatures can fluctuate too much and there is always the possibility of contamination by insects or animals.
Prep your kitchen. Start with a clean workspace and clean utensils. Wash the counters with hot, soapy water. Dry, then sanitize with a solution of 1 tablespoon bleach in 1 gallon of water. Dry with paper towels. Do the same for cutting boards you plan to use. Make sure pots, pans and utensils are washed and clean. Keep a supply of clean kitchen towels or just use paper towels.
Defrost safely: Meat should be defrosted in the refrigerator. Leave the meat in the original wrapper and place on a tray or in a pan and place on the lowest shelf of the fridge so no blood or liquid can drip onto other foods. Allow plenty of time to defrost: it takes about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of meat. Don’t be tempted to let meat thaw on the counter overnight.
Cook clean: Many hands may lighten the work, but they also allow more opportunity for bacteria to invade your food. Just washing hands can eliminate half of all food borne illnesses. Make sure everyone starts with clean hands, and remind them to wash again between cooking tasks.
Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked foods.
Everyone likes to sneak a taste of the food as it cooks so make sure tasting spoons are separate from serving spoons. Although tempting, discourage any tasting of raw cookie dough, cake batter or any food that contains raw eggs.
Page 2 of 2 - There is no need to rinse meat before cooking. In fact, there is a greater chance of introducing bacteria from the sink than any benefit rinsing might have. Simply pat the meat dry with paper towels and season as desired.
A food thermometer is an essential tool to prevent the risk of food poisoning from undercooked poultry. Turkeys should be cooked to 165 degrees with the temperature taken at the thigh joint. This means an 8 pound to 12 pound bird (unstuffed) will need about 3 hours to cook.
It’s best to leave the stuffing out of the bird and cook it in a separate pan. Tightly packed stuffing inside the turkey may not reach a high enough temperature to prevent bacteria from forming by the time the turkey is done.
Travel smart: Whether you are taking a dish to the family dinner or people are bringing dishes to your home, take care that these dishes are safe to eat. When packing a hot dish for travel, make sure it is piping hot and insulate it in towels or inside a cooler to keep it as hot as possible for travel. Cold dishes should travel in an iced cooler or in the trunk if it is below freezing outside. Once the hot dish arrives at its destination, it should be refrigerated if not to be served immediately or reheated to 165 degrees before serving.
Leftover rules: Holiday meals are often long, drawn out affairs. Although it is tempting to leave the food on the counter for everyone to nibble on all afternoon, it’s not a good idea. To keep everyone safe, leftovers need to be refrigerated within 2 hours of the meal. Put food in shallow containers and into the refrigerator to cool as quickly as possible. Meat should be removed from the bones and stored separate from any stuffing or gravy. Leftovers should be reheated to 165 degrees. A microwave is fine for this, but stir and rotate the food to avoid cool spots. Leftovers should only be kept for 3 or 4 days in the fridge or freeze for later use. If sending leftovers home with guests, be sure to pack them to stay cold for the trip home.
Make this holiday season safe from easily preventable food borne illnesses by paying attention to these basic food safety rules.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.