The table is set, the fire is lit and music is playing. But when friends and family are coming over for a holiday celebration, how do you make sure the food you’re preparing, serving and storing is safe and delicious? Experts say there are five easy steps you can follow to prevent making common food safety mistakes when feeding a crowd. “The good news is that our food is safer than ever. In fact, multiple reports show a substantial decline in the overall incidence of food borne illnesses,” says Sam Beattie, Ph.D., a consumer food safety specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University.
But there are still many opportunities to improve food safety in your own kitchen by being more conscious of food preparation habits.”Consumers can greatly increase food safety and reduce the possibility of food borne illness by practicing these five easy-to-remember steps:
Step 1: Sing Happy Birthday for the Holidays
Before beginning food preparation and after handling raw meat, always wash your hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds, which is about the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice. Cutting boards, utensils and countertops should also be washed with hot soapy water and rinsed with hot water after coming in contact with raw meat. If possible use two cutting boards, one for raw meats and poultry and one for ready-to-eat foods such as salads. Especially when you have several cooks in the kitchen, it’s critical to ensure everyone washes their hands often, says Beattie. This will greatly reduce the risk of cross-contamination of your food.
Step 2: Keep Frozen Food off the Countertop
Busy cooks often freeze food for later use, but defrosting food safely is important. Beattie says meat should never be defrosted at room temperature. Instead, the safest way to defrost is in your refrigerator. If you’re making a roast for your family’s holiday meal, plan ahead to allow enough time for the meat to defrost overnight in the refrigerator rather than on the countertop or in the sink.
Step 3: Use a Food Thermometer
The most accurate and reliable way to ensure safety and determine if meat and poultry is cooked appropriately is to use an instant-read meat thermometer, which can be found near your supermarket’s meat case. An instant-read thermometer should be used towards the end of the cooking process. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, and the temperature will register within several seconds. Cook beef roasts to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F and ground beef to 160 degrees F. Steaks and seafood need to reach 145 degrees F while poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees F.
Step 4: Keep Cold Foods Cold and Hot Foods Hot
To discourage the growth of foodborne bacteria, perishable foods should spend as little time in the danger zone — between 40 degrees and 140 degrees F — as possible and for no more than two hours, says Beattie. If your holiday meal includes a buffet, set a timer so that the alarm will alert you when it’s time to put the food in the refrigerator or reheat it.
If you and your family are traveling with perishable food that may support the growth of bacteria, you will need to plan ahead. Consider cooking ahead of time, transporting your dish cold and reheating when you arrive. Make sure to fully chill foods in your refrigerator and then use cold packs to fill the cooler of food.
Step 5: Enjoy a Great Roast Today and a Safe Sandwich Tomorrow
Once the celebration is over, leftovers are as much a tradition as the holiday meal itself. Choose shallow containers (2 inches or less) for quick cooling to prevent bacterial growth. Make sure you freeze or refrigerate your perishable leftovers within two hours or less after eating. By avoiding food safety mistakes in the kitchen, you can enjoy safe and healthy meals during the holidays and year-round.