UACES Facebook Food Safety for the Holidays
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Food Safety for the Holidays

By Lisa Lakey
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

(634 words)

From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, the holiday season is filled with gatherings around a table or buffet. While nothing’s better than a plate full of our seasonal favorites, without a little forethought, those turkey and trimmings can be sources of illness waiting to infect the next holiday party-goer.

Serena Fuller, Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Safety for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said a Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas buffet is great, and they can be safe if you remember to be mindful of the time the food is sitting out. 

“You actually do have quite a bit of time that you can leave foods out at room temperature before it becomes unsafe,” she said. “The rule is about two hours if it’s lower than ninety degrees in the environment. What you need to keep in mind is a total of two hours, not two hours from the time you put it at service. If possible, you want to transport food on ice and then reheat it when you get to the site if it’s a hot dish.” 

Making sure the food is cooked safely is also a top concern — and being the host or hostess of a large gathering of family and friends puts you at the center of the holiday feast preparing. 

“Make sure you prepare the food in a proper way,” Fuller said. “Typically that means if it’s a cooked, hot food that you’re cooking the food to the appropriate internal temperature. It varies depending on the dish. For poultry dishes, it’s 165 degrees Fahrenheit. For a beef roast or something like that, it’s 145 degrees. 

“The reason poultry needs to cook longer is because it is susceptible to salmonella, and salmonella is more heat resistant than other types of bacteria,” she said. “The only way you can know if it has reached that temperature is to check it with a thermometer that’s been calibrated appropriately.” 

But what’s a hostess to do with all the leftovers? Spreading the holiday love through sharing the remnants of a meal is a great way to make sure the remaining feast doesn’t go uneaten. Fuller said that as with any other food safety concern, a little planning for leftovers goes a long way. 

“Make sure you have a permanent marker and zip-top bags or plastic containers, and write the date on it,” she said. “Generally you want to consume things within five days, with one exception. Gravy you want to eat within two days because the bacteria really loves gravy. The refrigerator doesn’t kill the bacteria, it just slows its growth down. So by the time they reach five days, there’s a concern there could be considerable bacteria. And reheat them to 165 degrees for 15 seconds.” 

Freezing is also a great way to make those leftovers last a little longer. Lettuce, greens and other foods with particularly high water contents won’t freeze well, but most of your holiday meal will do just fine. One last important note of caution, Fuller said to never thaw food on the countertop, always in the refrigerator. 

“There was a time when that was already out at room temperature and the bacteria is still there,” she said. “Freezing does not kill bacteria. Always err on the side of caution. Label everything, consume refrigerator food within five days and really reheat them. And spread the leftover love.” 

A quick guide to safe internal cooking temperatures: 

•Turkey, chicken and other poultry (ground or whole) – 165 degrees
•Ground beef, pork, veal or lamb (along with injected meats) – 160 degrees
•Steaks and beef roasts – 145 degrees
•Pork or ham – 145 degrees
•Precooked ham – 140 degrees
•Leftovers and casseroles – 165 degrees 

For more information on the safe preparation of holiday meals and leftovers, contact your county FCS agent or visit


The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer. 


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Media Contact: Mary Hightower
Dir. of Communication Services
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
(501) 671-2126

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