Planning ahead for holiday meals

Planning ahead and being prepared keeps foodborne illness off the table.

Planning ahead and being prepared are ways to keep foodborne illness of the holiday table. There are five ways to keep in mind. 

Be organized and shop with food safety in mind

When organizing for holiday food preparation there are some essential pieces of equipment. A food thermometer will verify the internal cooking temperature of foods. There should be at least two cutting boards (one for raw meats, poultry, and seafood and the other for ready-to-eat foods) to prevent cross-contamination. Shallow storage containers for quick cooling of food. Be sure the refrigerator is set at or below 40 degrees Fahrenhet, and the freezer is set at 0 F. 

When out shopping, separate the raw meat/poultry/seafood by using plastic bags. Remember to separate the raw meat/poultry/seafood for the ride home as well. Although reduced produce sounds like a good buy, bruised or damaged produce is a perfect invitation for foodborne illness bacteria to grow. Avoid buying dented, leaking, or rusty canned goods because they are ideal breeding ground for foodborne illness bacteria.

Once home, perishable food needs to be refrigerated, frozen, or prepared. When thawing a frozen turkey in the refrigerator allow one day per five pound. If the cold water technique for thawing is used, change the water every 30 minutes. This will take 30 minutes of thawing time per pound. Never thaw on the kitchen counter.

Practice proper hand washing technique

Germs spread fast with dirty hands. Be sure to wash: palms and fingers; between the fingers and thumb; wrists; back of the hands; under and around the fingernails soap and water!

Cook and eat safely

Bacteria in contaminated food are odorless, colorless, and tasteless. Using a food thermometer is critical to determining if the food has reached the correct internal cooking temperature to kill harmful bacteria. Wash, rinse, and sanitize the thermometer in between uses. 

To be sure that poultry/meat/seafood are cooked to the correct internal temperature:

  • The thickest part of the turkey (all poultry) must reach an internal temperature of 165 F.
  • The stuffing should reach a minimum internal temperature of 165 F if cooked inside the bird.
  • All ground meat (except poultry) should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160 F.
  • Whole cuts of meat, including pork, should reach a minimum internal temperature of 145 F. Allow the meat to rest three minutes before carving or serving.
  • The safe internal temperature for seafood is 145 F.

Michigan State University Extension recommends keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Once the food is out of the oven or refrigerator, there is 2 hours to serve, enjoy, and then it is time to refrigerate or freeze the leftovers. 

To safely make homemade eggnog, meringues or other dishes requiring raw eggs, it is wise to use pasteurized eggs.

Avoid cross-contamination

Always wash, rinse, and sanitize all food preparation surfaces, utensils, cutting boards and dishes. Never put cooked meat on a plate that held the raw meat. When marinating always do so in the refrigerator. If the marinade is to be used as a condiment for the cooked food, set some aside before adding the raw meat. If you're preparing fruits and vegetables always rinse with running water, even if you are planning on peeling or slicing it. Avoid leaving produce out for more than two hours at room temperature.

Use separate containers to store raw and read-to-eat foods in the refrigerator. To allow air circulation in the refrigerator, be sure there is enough space around the food. Do not over pack the refrigerator.

Caring for leftovers

Refrigerate leftovers with 2 hours. Use shallow containers to allow the leftovers to cool quickly. Slice up large pieces of cooked meat or poultry. Strive for the leftovers being a container that is less than two inches deep. Leftovers should be stored in airtight containers to keep out bacteria and odors. Label and date all leftovers.

Leftovers should be eaten within 3-4 days. If that is not possible, the freeze or discard them. Leftovers can freeze for 3-4 months before the quality starts to go bad. 

Reheat leftovers to a temperature of 165 F. All solid leftovers such as meat, poultry, or stuffing should be reheated to 165 F. Soups, sauces, and gravies should be brought to a full rolling boil. Always thaw leftovers in the refrigerator. If you thaw in the microwave, the leftovers, need to be cooked immediately using the conventional method.

Keeping these 5 pointers in mind when planning the holiday meals will help keep the foodborne illness bacteria from visiting the holiday table.

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