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Food for Thought Food for Thought

Holiday Food Safety for Your Kitchen

January 16, 2013

By Amanda Haller, B.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Holidays are a wonderful time of celebration that includes food, family and friends. Holidays may also bring more cooks into the kitchen — and maybe a greater chance for unsafe handling of food to occur.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year up to 76 million people are affected by food-borne illnesses. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain or even fevers. One cause of these illnesses is germs and bacteria that are spread when food is not safely handled.

You can help prevent food-borne illnesses at home by making sure that all the cooks in your kitchen, including yourself, follow these food safety tips.

1. Keep it clean.

Wash your hands often when preparing foods. It may sound silly, but there is a proper way to wash your hands. Wash hands thoroughly with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, or the same amount of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice. Dry your hands with a paper towel or a clean dish towel. Wash your hands often while preparing food, especially after handing any type of raw meat, after touching the garbage and after using the bathroom.

2. Thaw it smartly.

The safest way to thaw your holiday turkey or ham is in the refrigerator. Put it on a plate on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. This will prevent juices from driping onto other foods. Allow about 1 day of thawing for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey or ham.

Here are some tips if you're running short on time.

  • Thaw turkey or ham can in the microwave. (Check the owner's manual for directions.) The microwave can cause some hot spots in meat, so it's important to begin cooking immediately after thawing in the microwave.
  • To thaw meats in cold water, keep it in its original airtight packaging and put in a leak-proof bag. Cover it with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Allow 30 minutes of thawing for each pound of meat.
  • Holiday turkey or hams should never be thawed at room temperature on a counter top or under hot water.

You can also avoid spreading harmful bacteria by starting with a clean kitchen and utensils. Use a separate cutting board and utensils for raw meat. Never use the same cutting board or utensils on other foods that was used for raw meat. This could spread bacteria and cause food-borne illness such as salmonella. Also, be sure to clean countertops often, especially after handling raw meats.

3. Cook it thoroughly.

Undercooked meat may contain harmful bacteria that can cause food-borne illness. Make a meat thermometer your new best friend in the kitchen. Use it to ensure that you cook food thoroughly.

Pop-up thermometers that are inserted into some turkeys don't accurately measure temperature, so it is difficult to know when the turkey is thoroughly cooked.

Place a meat thermometer into the innerrmost part of the turkey thigh, or into the thickest part of the ham or roast and follow these guidelines:

  • Cook turkey until it reaches 165° Fahrenheit.
  • Ham or pork roasts should be cooked to 160° Fahrenheit.
  • Stuffed turkeys should also cook until they reach 165° Fahrenheit when the thermometer is inserted into the stuffing.

Also, be sure to boil gravy before serving to kill harmful bacteria.

4. Refrigerate promptly.

Holiday parties can last for hours and food is often left out until people leave. Bacteria rapidly multiply after more than 2 hours of sitting at room temperature, which can make food unsafe to eat. To prevent this from happening, refrigerate food within 2 hours of serving it. For longer parties, keep some fresh food in the refrigerator to serve at intervals during the party.

A word about uncooked cookie or cake batter. Because it contains raw eggs that may be contaminated with salmonella bacteria, don't let people dip into it. Salmonella can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, which are enough to ruin anyone's holiday.

5. Store it properly.

It is a common mistake to let cooked food cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. Instead, use the same 2-hour rule as above and place cooked food in the refrigerator within 2 hours of cooking.

Proper storage containers should be less than 2 inches deep and airtight. Deep storage containers allow the middle to remain warmer for longer, which could let bacteria growth. Here are some additional tips.

  • To store turkey correctly, pull the breast meat off the bone. You can leave legs and wings whole.
  • Stuffing should be removed from the turkey and stored separately.
  • Refrigerator temperatures should be less than 40° Fahrenheit; the freezer should be less than 0° Fahrenheit.

Be sure to use your delicious leftovers soon after the holiday.

  • Cooked turkey, casseroles and cooked vegetables should be eaten within 3 to 4 days.
  • Stuffing and gravy should be eaten within 1 to 2 days.
  • Desserts such as fruit and cream pies should be eaten within 2 to 3 days; cheesecake should be eaten within 7 days.

If you are ever in doubt if your leftovers are still fresh, throw them out!

Don't let harmful bacteria ruin your holiday fun this year. Simply keep these tips in mind when preparing, cooking, serving and storing food to have a happy, safe holiday!

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Amanda Haller completed her B.S. in nutrition and dietetics at Simmons College, Boston. She is currently a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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