Top tips for holiday food safety

Nov 21, 2016, 07:50 AM by Bill Anchondo, executive chef, UTMB Food and Nutrition Services

Santasnack‘Tis the season for parties and family gatherings where food is served—but the merry festivities can quickly turn south if the food makes you or others sick. Make sure you serve a safe and healthy holiday meal by keeping the following tips in mind:

  • Prep the day before. Make traditional dishes such as green bean and sweet potato casseroles the day before and refrigerate. That way, you can pop them in the oven on Thanksgiving day. It will save you time, stress and the risk of leaving a bunch of perishable or potentially hazardous ingredients on the counter while you make one dish at a time.
  • Use care with stuffing. Don’t stuff the turkey the day before you cook it—that’s asking for bacterial growth. Stuffing should be prepared and stuffed into the turkey immediately before it’s put in the oven. Even better, bake your stuffing in a separate casserole dish.
  • Get a thermometer. It’s the only way to know for sure whether your turkey has been cooked properly. Once the thickest part of the turkey thigh reaches 165 degrees and holds that temperature for more than 15 seconds, the turkey is done.
  • Avoid cross-contamination. When grocery shopping, storing food in the refrigerator or preparing meals, keep raw eggs and meat away from other foods that won’t be cooked. Cook the turkey below other dishes in the oven and consider using color-coded cutting boards, such as a red cutting board for meats, white for ready-to-eat food and green for produce.
  • Wash your hands with running water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling foods, especially raw meat and eggs. Food prep surfaces, such as counter tops, cutting boards and utensils also need to be washed with hot soapy water after preparing each food item.
  • Don’t leave food out. It’s one of the biggest holiday food safety problems. Once everyone has dished up, set your oven at 175 degrees and put all the hot food back in it. The oven can act as a “holding box” for several hours to keep food out of the “danger zone,” which is between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. Refrigerate leftovers at 40 degrees or below as soon as possible to prevent foodborne illness.
  • Use thermal bags if traveling to minimize temperature fluctuations. Remove food from the stove/oven just before leaving home and transfer it to a thermal container or insulated bag. When you arrive, reheat hot foods to a safe temperature.
  • Eating leftovers. As a rule of thumb, proteins such as turkey are OK to eat for up to three days after being cooked. Starches and other leftovers are good for four to five days. When in doubt, throw it out.
  • Freezing leftovers. Use specially marked freezer bags with a double zipper. The trick is to make it as airtight as you can. Any air that is left will cause ice crystals to form, resulting in freezer burn.