As we “turn the page” to November and feel the chill in the air, our thoughts turn to special meals unique to the holiday season. But how many of us stop to consider the importance of keeping those foods safe?
For many families, the kickoff to holiday cooking is Thanksgiving; turkeys are lovingly prepared and served along with a host of side dishes and desserts. Yet, holiday cooking extends all the way to New Year’s Day. So consider these five tips as you plan your holiday cooking:
Plan ahead and make space in the fridge. For many of us, our refrigerators are crammed throughout the year. But look out when it’s time to fit in ingredients for holiday feasts. Before the big shopping trip for the holiday meal, take an inventory of what you have. Perhaps create a few meals where you can use up items and make room? Toss any expired items and wipe down all the shelves. A clean fridge with room for holiday-themed foods is safer and less stressful.
Wash your hands, but skip washing the bird. Should meat and poultry be washed before cooking? No. Many people believe washing or rinsing raw meat and poultry makes it safer. The problem? Cross-contamination is likely to occur if raw meat is washed or rinsed, because bacteria can splash onto the sink and counters. The good news is that bacteria on the surface of meat or poultry are easily destroyed by cooking at the proper temperature.
Use a food thermometer. A tip-sensitive digital thermometer can show you the temperature of cooked meat lightning fast. It’s the most reliable way to indicate if a meat is done. Turkey should be roasted to 165 degrees, while meats such as beef, lamb, and even pork are done at 145 degrees. Ground meat, however, should be cooked to 160 degrees.
Say “no” to raw cookie dough. In addition to the well–known risk of salmonella from an uncooked egg, now raw flour is being implicated in food-borne illness. Last November, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that a type of E. coli bacteria can thrive in dry food such as flour. So avoid tasting uncooked flour dishes. And be sure to wash your hands in warm, soapy water after touching flour, such as when dredging meats or veggies.
Steer clear of rancid foods. Those packages of crackers or cookies crammed back in the pantry might be too old to serve to your unexpected guests. If you notice a grassy or paint-like odor from a packaged food item, the fat is oxidized. Oxidized fats and oils can lead to serious health problems. Other possible rancid foods include an old bag of nuts, whole-grain flour, or the huge container of vegetable oil you bought at the warehouse club that has been sitting there for too long. So give these foods the “sniff test” before serving.
Two hours from oven to refrigerator. Refrigerate (or freeze) what’s leftover within two hours of cooking. Otherwise, toss.
Two-inches thick to cool it quickly. Store food in shallow containers two-inches deep or less to speed the chilling.
Four days in the fridge. Use up leftovers within four days, or freeze them. One notable exception is dressing and gravy, which should be consumed within only two days.
By following these common-sense rules of thumb, you can celebrate Peace on Earth with your loved ones — without getting sick from food-borne illness this holiday season.
Christine Palumbo is a Naperville, Ill.,-registered dietitian nutritionist and Fellow of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @PalumboRD, Facebook at Christine Palumbo Nutrition, or Chris