Don’t let this uninvited guest ruin your holiday feast
Turkey dinner with all the trimmings, appetizers and desserts galore, along with cups of eggnog and cocktails. Food plays a central role in how we celebrate the holidays, which usually adds joy to the occasion. But, if it’s improperly handled or left out too long, meals can also be dangerous.
To make sure your holiday feasts go off without a hitch, here are some food safety tips from Falmouth Hospital registered dietitian Michele McGann, RDN, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:
Avoid “The Danger Zone”
Bacteria can quickly grow in food that is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the so-called ‘danger zone.’ Germs can double their numbers in as short a time as 20 minutes, according to the USDA. Your refrigerator should be set at or lower than 40 degrees, according to the CDC.
“Keep hot food hot and cold food cold,” the CDC advises.
If you’re tailgating at a Thanksgiving football game, put your prepared food in a cooler with ice, and heat it up when ready to serve, McGann said.
Prepared food or leftovers at temperatures between 40 and 70 degrees can be left out for up to two hours, McGann said. Prepared food between 90 and 120 degrees can be left out no more than an hour. It’s easy to forget about time while sitting around the table, but it’s best to refrigerate or freeze food promptly. Refrigerated leftovers should be eaten within two to three days, she said.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” McGann said.
When reheating leftovers, the USDA says to rapidly bring the internal temperature up to 165 degrees, when the food should be steaming.
Thawing the Turkey
It takes a long time to properly thaw a frozen turkey.
“Back in the day, we used to thaw turkeys – just put it in the sink,” McGann said. “But that’s the danger zone, and it shouldn’t be in there for more than two hours.”
The safest method is to thaw in the refrigerator, which can take 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds. A 25-pound turkey might take five to six days McGann said, so plan accordingly.
A faster way entails thawing the bird in cold water, 30 minutes per pound. You must change the water every 30 minutes to maintain a safe temperature, McGann said.
You can also use a microwave oven to thaw your turkey, but unless you have a small turkey or a big microwave, the bird may not fit in the oven.
The CDC also recommends against washing or rinsing your turkey, as it can spread germs.
Raw Meat, Seafood and Eggs
Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs can carry germs, so be careful when working with these items, or storing them. Wash your hands frequently, and keep these raw foods separate from other foods while prepping. Clean cutting boards, countertops and utensils with hot, soapy water between handling raw meat and other foods.
“Just make sure you’re not touching raw meat, then touching something else,” McGann said.
When storing raw meat, poultry and seafood in the refrigerator, place these items so they can’t drip onto other foods, the CDC says. Keep everything in sealed containers or plastic bags.
“Make sure you put raw meat below the vegetables” in your refrigerator, McGann said. “Eggs and mayonnaise and salad dressings should not be on the door,” which is warmer than the interior shelves.”
Use liquid pasteurized eggs, if you want to whip up some homemade eggnog or tiramisu, she said. Relying on added booze to kill off any germs isn’t a smart idea. Also use pasteurized eggs when making cookies or other doughs and batters, if you plan on eating the raw dough or sharing it with children.
“Eating cookie dough with raw eggs when we were kids – that was the best,” McGann said, but we now know better. “Now we don’t really recommend it.”
Safe Cooking Temperatures
A good way to ensure your cooked food is safe is to check its temperature. Turkey should be at least 165 degrees and ground beef at 160, McGann said. Food thermometers need not be expensive, but make certain they’re calibrated so you get accurate readings. McGann said this can be easily checked by taking the temperature of a fifty-fifty mix of ice and water – the thermometer should read 32 degrees or very close to that.
The CDC offers these temperatures and safety guidelines for cooking:
- Finfish – 145 degrees or until opaque.
- Shellfish – For crabs, lobsters and scallops, cook till opaque. For clams, mussels and oysters, cook until shells open.
- Fresh ham, chops, steaks and roasts – 145 degrees, and let rest for at least three minutes after cooking.
- Poultry – 165 degrees
- Casseroles and leftovers – 165 degrees.
It’s safer to cook your Thanksgiving stuffing separately, McGann said. Baste the separately-cooked stuffing with pan drippings. Alternately, if you cook the bird stuffed, place stuffing back in the oven after the turkey is done to ensure it reaches 165 degrees.
Tip: Stuffing may also have affected the temperature of the wings and thigh area, so doublecheck those sections have reached 165 degrees, McGann said.
Then wait 20 minutes after taking the turkey out of the oven before removing the stuffing, as it will cook a little longer while the bird rests.
Have Fun, But Stay Safe
You may have grandparents, infants, pregnant women or someone with a weak immune system from diabetes or cancer treatment at your holiday table. These folks are more vulnerable to illness from contaminated food. Good hygiene can help protect them. Everyone should wash their hands often, the CDC advises, even if they’re not preparing food. Wash after using the bathroom or cleaning up after a child or pet, touching pets and pet food, handling garbage or after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
With all this great food around, trying to diet during the holidays may be a recipe for frustration, so don’t beat yourself up too much if you have an extra piece of pie.
“Everything in moderation.” McGann said. “If you do indulge, just get back on the wagon. If you can maintain your weight during the holidays, you’re doing good.”