UACES Facebook Cooking Up Safe Food During the Holidays
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Cooking Up Safe Food During the Holidays

“Oh, I need to rinse my turkey before cooking – the recipe says to do that!”

“The refrigerator is full anyway – this food will be okay on the table until we eat again.”

“What’s the big deal?  I haven’t been sick yet!”

Food safety may not rank high on your list of things to take care of during the holidays, but it can make a difference.  You certainly wouldn’t want to be known as the “stomach virus” cook.  But during the holidays, with all the extra cooking, food safety is sometimes thrown to the wayside. 

So why is food safety important anyway? 

Nobody gets that sick anymore, right?!  According to public health and food safety experts, each year millions of illnesses in this country can be traced to foodborne bacteria.  While the likelihood of serious complications is unknown, the Food and Drug Administration estimates that two to three percent of all foodborne illnesses lead to secondary long-term illnesses. 

For example, certain strains of E.coli can cause kidney failure in young children and infants; Salmonella can lead to reactive arthritis and serious infections; Listeria can cause meningitis and stillbirths; and Campylobacter may be the most common precipitating factor for Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Here are some tips to have a safe holiday:

Cooking in QuantityWhen preparing for your special event, remember that there may be an invisible enemy ready to strike. It's called BAC (bacteria), and it can make you sick. But by following four simple steps, you have the power to Fight BAC!® and keep your food safe.

  • Clean — Wash hands and surfaces often. You’re probably already washing your hands a lot these days.  But make sure you’re really washing them well – using warm water, soap, and washing for at least 20 seconds.
  • Separate — Don't cross-contaminate. Have multiple cutting boards – one for meats/poultry, and one for fresh vegetables.
  • Cook — Cook to proper temperatures. Use a thermometer for a no-guessing game.
  • Chill — Refrigerate promptly. Put into shallow containers so food cools quickly.

Make sure you have the right equipment, including cutting boards, utensils, food thermometers, cookware, shallow containers for storage, soap, and paper towels.

Plan ahead to ensure that you’ll have enough storage space in the refrigerator and freezer. In the refrigerator, air needs to circulate to keep the temperature at 40 °F or below. You may need to clean out the fridge and freezer the week before to make sure you have plenty of room.

And remember, you don’t need to rinse poultry or meat before cooking.  That just spreads more bacteria around! So, ignore that part of the recipe!

When You Shop

  • Avoid canned goods that are dented, leaking, bulging, or rusted. These are the warning signs that dangerous bacteria may be growing in the can.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood and eggs from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags and in your refrigerator.
  • Buy cold foods last. Plan to drive directly home from the grocery store. You may want to take a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs for perishables. Always refrigerate perishable food within two hours.
  • Wash your hands when you get home!

Working in the Kitchen

  • Make sure that anyone who helps in the kitchen knows the basic food safety rules—clean, separate, cook and chill. 
  • When a crowd is over and food preparation gets hectic, it can be safer to stock up on paper towels for everyone to use and dispose of. Sponges and kitchen towels can easily soak up BAC! and contaminate other foods. Encourage everyone to wash his or her hands with soap and warm water when helping with food. 
  • Try to keep the refrigerator door closed as much as possible. That helps keep the refrigerator safely at 40 °F or below.
  • Use that thermometer! All poultry should get to 165 degrees F.  Casseroles and leftovers should get to 165 degrees F also.

Lovely Leftovers

  • Clear the table after eating.  Wash hands and put up the food while someone else gets dessert ready. It is best to get the food in the fridge as soon as possible, so you may even want to wait for dessert (maybe you ate too much?!).  Don’t just leave food out on the counter until you have time to put it away.  Make time!
  • Throw away all perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs and casseroles, left at room temperature longer than two hours; one hour in air temperatures above 90 °F. This includes leftovers taken home from a restaurant. Some exceptions to this rule are foods such as cookies, crackers, bread, and whole fruits.
  • Whole roasts, hams and turkeys should be sliced or cut into smaller pieces or portions before storing them in the refrigerator or freezer. Turkey legs, wings and thighs may be left whole. I like to cut up some leftover ham and put it in freezer bags for later.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftovers in shallow containers. Wrap or cover the food.

Refrigerator Storage at 40 °F or Below

  • Cooked meat, meat dishes and poultry - 3 to 4 days
  • Pizza - 3 to 4 days
  • Luncheon meats (opened) - 3 to 5 days
  • Egg, tuna, and macaroni salads - 3 to 5 days

Foods stored longer may begin to spoil or become unsafe to eat. Do not taste.

Freezer Storage at 0 °F or Below

  • Cooked meat, meat dishes or poultry - 2 to 6 months
  • Pizza - 1 to 2 months
  • Luncheon meats - 1 to 2 months

Foods stored longer may begin to spoil or become unsafe to eat. Do not taste.

Salads made with mayonnaise do not freeze well.

Foods kept frozen longer than recommended storage times are safe but may be drier and not taste as good.


Keep your family safe this holiday season!

For more information about times, temperatures, or food safety, contact me at the White County Extension Office – 2400 Old Searcy Landing Road in Searcy, 501-268-5394, or