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As we head into the holidays, with lots of cooking and parties, now is a good time to brush up on how to prepare food safely and cut down on the risk of a foodborne illness.

Foodborne illness is a real problem.  The Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are 76 million cases annually in the United States, and that includes 325,000 hospitalizations and 5200.

Symptoms of a foodborne illness can begin to show up anywhere from a few hours to a few days after eating contaminated food, which means the last meal you eat before getting sick may not always be the culprit – it could be food from a few days back. This can be particularly true at Thanksgiving, parties and other special meals, where food may be left out for a long period of time.

Following are some important tips to remember to keep your holiday meals, and guest, healthy:

DANGER Zone

Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 °F. To keep food out of this “Danger Zone,” keep cold food cold and hot food hot. Keep food cold in the refrigerator, in coolers, or on the serving line on ice. Keep hot food in the oven, in heated chafing dishes,
or in preheated steam tables, warming trays and/or slow cookers.

Never leave perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs and casseroles in the “Danger Zone” over 2 hours; 1 hour in temperatures above 90 °F.

When You Chill Food

  • Place food in the refrigerator.
  • Don’t overfill the refrigerator. Cool air must circulate to keep food safe.
  • Divide food and place in shallow containers. Slice roast beef or ham and layer in containers in portions for serving.
  • Divide turkey into smaller portions or slices and refrigerate.
  • Remove stuffing from cavity before refrigeration.
  • Place soups or stews in shallow containers. To cool quickly, place in ice water bath and stir.
  • Cover and label cooked foods. Include the preparation date on the label.

When You Transport Food

Keep cold food cold. Place cold food in cooler with a cold source such as ice or frozen gel packs. Use plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. Keep an appliance thermometer in the cooler. Cold food should be held at 40 °F or below. Hot food should be kept hot, at or above 140 °F.Wrap well and place in an insulated container.

When You Reheat Food

  • Heat cooked, commercially vacuum-sealed, ready-to-eat foods, such as hams and roasts, to 140 °F.
  • Foods that have been cooked ahead and cooled should be reheated to at least 165 °F.
  • Reheat leftovers thoroughly to at least 165 °F. Reheat sauces, soups, and gravies to a boil.

    On Stove Top — Place food in pan and heat thoroughly. The food should reach at least 165 °F on a food thermometer when done.

    In Oven — Place food in oven set no lower than 325 °F. The food should reach at least 165 °F on a food thermometer when done.

    In Microwave — Stir, cover, and rotate fully cooked food for even heating. Allow standing time. Heat food until it reaches at least 165 °F throughout.

In Slow Cooker, Steam Tables or Chafing Dishes —Not Recommended. Reheating leftovers in slow cookers, steam tables or chafing dishes is not recommended because foods may stay in the “Danger Zone,” between 40 and 140 °F, too long. Bacteria multiply rapidly at these temperatures.

When You Keep Food Hot

Once food is cooked or reheated, it should be held hot, at or above 140 °F. Food may be held in oven or on serving line in heated chafing dishes, or on preheated steam tables, warming trays, and/or slow cookers. Always keep hot food hot. Hot holding for extended periods may reduce the quality of the food.

When You Keep Food Cold

Store food in refrigerator at 40 °F or below. If there is not enough room in the refrigerator, place food in coolers with ice, or frozen gel packs. Always keep cold food cold.

When You Serve Food

  • Use clean containers and utensils to store and serve food.
  • Do not use a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood unless the plate has first been washed in hot, soapy water.
  • When a dish is empty or nearly empty, replace with a fresh container of food, removing the previous container.

Keep It Cold

  • Place cold food in containers on ice. Hold cold foods at or below 40 °F.
  • Food that will be portioned and served on the serving line should be placed in a shallow container.
  • Place this container inside a deep pan filled partially with ice to keep food cold.
  • Food like chicken salad and desserts in individual serving dishes can also be placed directly on ice, or
  • in a shallow container set in a deep pan filled with ice. Drain off water as ice melts and replace ice frequently.

Keep It Hot

  • Once food is thoroughly heated on stovetop, oven or in microwave oven, keep food hot by using a heat source. Place food in chafing dishes, preheated steam tables, warming trays, and/or slow cookers.
  • Check the temperature frequently to be sure food stays at or above 140 °F.

When You Finish Up

Discard all perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs and casseroles, left at room temperature longer than 2 hours; 1 hour in temperatures above 90 °F. Some exceptions to this rule are foods such as cookies, crackers, bread and whole fruit. Immediately refrigerate or freeze remaining leftovers in shallow containers.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service

For more information or for a free presentation on food safety, contact the Haywood County Cooperative Extension at 828-456-3575. You may also visit the USDA website, Usda.gov, or the U.S. Food & Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition website, cfsan.fda.gov