NUTRITION: Food safety during the holidays
As we enter the holiday season, there are likely many events where food is shared, so it's an important time to talk about food safety. Around holiday party time, food items will often be prepared at one location and transported to another. This food is then often left out, buffet style, for sharing. These conditions often lead to increased bacterial growth and increased food poisoning.
Especially if you are hosting a large crowd, start food safety planning even before going to the grocery store. Think about your storage space; where will all the food be stored? Take a moment to clean and organize the refrigerator. Do you have extra freezer space that should be cleaned and organized? How about oven space? Do you have enough space to keep everything warm? If you are going to be transporting food, do you have proper containers? Do you need ice for a cooler or a warming plate?
Once you have a plan and a menu in mind, head to the grocery store. When grocery shopping, be sure to buy cold and frozen foods last, to minimize the time those foods are not in refrigeration. Prevent juices from meat, poultry, seafood and dairy from dripping or leaking onto other foods.
Wash your hands before you begin any food preparation and after touching any raw animal products or unwashed produce. This goes for your guests, too, or anyone who is going to snack a bit while you're cooking.
Thaw frozen meats appropriately. Frozen meats should be thawed in the refrigerator below 40 degrees. If you are pressed for time, you can thaw meats by leaving them submerged under cold, running water. Some smaller cuts of meat can be thawed in the microwave, but be careful when using this option to not allow the meat to begin to cook. Also, you should cook meat immediately after thawing it in a microwave.
Invest in a thermometer. Cook meats such as beef, pork, lamb and fish to 145 degrees. Poultry and hotdish or mixed-egg dishes should be cooked to 165 degrees. Ground meats should be cooked to 160 degrees. Ensuring your food is at the proper temperature is one of the most certain ways to reduce food poisoning. Hot foods should remain about 140 degrees, and cold foods should remain below 40 degrees. The range between 40-140 degrees is known as the "danger zone." Perishable food left in the danger zone for more than two hours should be thrown out. When traveling with foods, make sure coolers stay below 40 degrees, and insulate warm foods to stay about 140 degrees.
Cool leftovers quickly. Remember, anything in the danger zone for more than two hours should be thrown away. Thanksgiving leftovers will be safe in the refrigerator for up to four days and safe in the freezer for a few months, but freezing may decrease the moisture and palatability of some foods. Heat all leftovers to 165 degrees before consuming.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state than one in six Americans will get sick with a foodborne illness every year. Look to the CDC and local health departments for up-to-date information about food safety and possible outbreaks. Take time to ensure your family is safe, and enjoy your favorite holiday foods.
Brenda Schwerdt, RDN, LD, CNSC, is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke’s hospital. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All temperatures noted use the Fahrenheit scale.