Thanksgiving is quickly approaching which means more time in the kitchen and around the table with family and friends. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every six Americans becomes ill each year from consuming contaminated foods or beverages. Therefore, food safety should always be a priority and the holidays are no exception.
The good news is you can protect your family and friends from foodborne illness by taking a few smart steps in your kitchen from the Partnership for Food Safety Education “Fight BAC” initiative: clean, separate, cook and chill. There is no better time than now to make sure you’re using proper kitchen safety techniques at holiday parties and meals.
Before preparing food, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water and cover cuts and scrapes with bandages to avoid contamination. When creating holiday dishes with fresh fruits and vegetables, first wash them well under plain running water. It’s not necessary to use soap or a produce wash. The Food and Drug Administration recommends rinsing produce before you peel it, so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable. You can scrub firm produce like melons and cucumbers with a clean vegetable brush. Also make sure to wash cutting boards, utensils, and counters with hot soapy water between preparing different types of food items.
To avoid cross-contamination, cooked and raw foods should be prepared in separate areas on different cutting boards and plates to avoid possible cross contamination with bacteria between foods. For example, fruit or vegetable salads and raw meats should be sliced at another time and separate counter and cutting board, which are washed well between each food’s preparation.
Promptly refrigerate or freeze any meat, poultry, eggs, and other perishable foods after grocery shopping. Never let raw meat, poultry, eggs, cooked food or cut fresh fruits or vegetables sit at room temperature for more than two hours before refrigerating or freezing. Do not defrost food, such as your turkey, at room temperature rather, defrost food in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. If you are using a frozen turkey, keep it frozen until you are ready to thaw. Then, thaw it in the refrigerator, allowing 24 hours of thawing time for every 4 - 5 pounds of turkey. If you choose to thaw your turkey in cold water in a sink, allow about 30 minutes for every pound and change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cool. Don’t forget to cook food thawed in cold water or the microwave immediately.
Additional food safety steps can be taken while cooking and cleaning holiday dishes and utensils. Use different clean utensils for each food item. To avoid bacteria growth, place your holiday turkey immediately into the oven after stuffing and cook it until the center of the turkey reaches at least 165°F. Make sure to cook food to the proper temperature to kill harmful bacteria. Use a food thermometer to check the temperature of cooked meat, poultry and egg dishes as listed in the chart below. Also, be sure to remove and cook the turkey giblets separately. Don’t leave them in the bird. Any utensils used while cooking should be washed in hot water before using them again.
Holiday leftovers provide a wonderful way to enjoy holiday favorites a little longer. After eating your meal, slow the growth of harmful bacteria by refrigerating foods quickly. Store your leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of being prepared. The best way to store leftover turkey and dressing is in sealed air-tight containers in the refrigerator or freezer. Food can be stored in the refrigerator for 3 - 4 days and in the freezer for 2 - 6 months. Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quicker cooling in the refrigerator.
A healthy holiday season is a happier holiday season. By using these food safety tips, you will be armed with the tools to stay safe in the kitchen and decrease your risk for food-borne illness. For more information on holiday food safety, check the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration websites by searching on “Holiday Food Safety USDA and FDA.”
Thanks to Emily Kolasheski, a senior dietetics student at Texas A&M University and my mentee in the Texas A&M/University of North Florida RD Mentorship Program this year, for her assistance with this blog.
MS, RDN, LD, FAND
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