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10 Food-Safety Mistakes Every Holiday Cook Can Make

Tips for home chefs to prevent a foodborne illness from ruining your celebration

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During the holiday season the kitchen takes center stage as the heart of the home. However, kitchen mishaps can inadvertently contaminate your meal and cause illness. This is particularly important if you’re preparing meals for adults 65 or older who are more vulnerable to serious complications from foodborne illness.

“A younger person might just get sick for 24 or 48 hours and not feel good,” says Jennifer Quinlan, a professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “But with older adults, it could potentially become a systemic infection; they can end up in the hospital.” Children under 5, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are also at higher risk of severe cases of food poisoning.

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Here are 10 tips from food-safety experts that every holiday chef should follow to prevent mistakes in the kitchen that can lead to a foodborne illness.

1. Wash your hands.

There can be a lot going on in the kitchen while juggling a holiday meal. So, it’s important to make sure to wash your hands often and thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and water, especially before and after handling raw seafood and meat, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A simple slip like placing a cooked dish on the table immediately after touching raw meat without washing your hands can easily spread germs.

2. Wash fruits and vegetables.

Even if you plan to peel or cut fruits and vegetables, wash them first to avoid germs on their surface from being transferred to the flesh of the produce by the knife or peeler. Make sure to rinse all produce under running water. Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm fruits and vegetables like avocados or melons.

3. Don’t wash your holiday turkey.

Washing your holiday turkey in the sink before you cook it runs the risk of cross contamination by splashing and spreading germs from the raw turkey to your hands, countertop or other foods, says Brigette Gleason, medical epidemiologist with the CDC. The same goes for washing other raw poultry and meats. Cooking meat and poultry to the correct safe internal temperature will kill any dangerous bacteria without the need for washing.

4. Use a kitchen thermometer.

During the holidays, home chefs often prepare larger cuts of meat such as a roast or whole turkey and side dishes in larger quantities. These are more difficult to heat through to the right cooking temperature. The only way to know for sure that cooked food has reached a safe temperature for consumption is by using a kitchen thermometer. “For poultry and for stuffing inside of poultry as well as any casserole, 165 degrees is the temperature we want to hit,” Gleason says.


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5. Don’t eat raw batter or dough.

Baking is synonymous with the holidays, but raw eggs and flour, the main ingredients in batter and dough, can be contaminated with salmonella, a bacteria that causes diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. Avoid the temptation to sample raw cookie dough or anything else that may have raw eggs or flour, such as raw eggnog, mousses and meringues, Gleason says. E. coli, another bacteria that can cause food poisoning, can be found in raw flour.

Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures

  • Ground beef, pork, veal, lamb: 160 F
  • Ground chicken, turkey: 165 F
  • Steaks, roasts, chops: 145 F
  • Poultry: 165 F
  • Fresh pork, ham: 145 F
  • Precooked ham: 165 F
  • Egg dishes: 160 F
  • Leftovers, casseroles: 165 F
  • Fish with fins: 145 F


6. Don’t count on taste or smell alone.

You can’t taste, smell or see germs that cause food poisoning, and even a small amount of contaminated food can make you very sick. When you store leftovers in the refrigerator, write down the date it was cooked on the storage container so you know when to throw it away. Refer to these federal guidelines for time limits for refrigerating or freezing leftovers. For example, leftover pizza is only good in the refrigerator for three to four days; an open pack of deli luncheon meat, three to five days.

7. Don’t thaw or marinate food on the counter.

Any food left out at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit longer than two hours can grow bacteria. This temperature range is what food-safety experts refer to as the “danger zone” for food poisoning. Instead, thaw foods in the refrigerator, cold water or the microwave. Make sure to always marinate food in the refrigerator as well.

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8. Put prepared food away within two hours.

Holiday meals are often served buffet-style and enjoyed throughout the day or night. However, unless you can keep perishable foods at a safe temperature, they need to go into the refrigerator within two hours. “If you have a food thermometer and can verify that the temperature of the food is staying above 140 [degrees Fahrenheit], then that can be safe,” says Gleason. “But once you start letting food into that danger zone [between 40 and 140 degrees], then that’s where the bacteria can grow."

9. Driving long distance to celebrate? Chill food first.

“If you’re not traveling too far, keep it hot. Or, if you are traveling a distance, make it, refrigerate it and then travel with it in a cooler if possible,” Drexel University’s Quinlan says. Baked goods such as Christmas cookies or bread are generally okay at room temperature because there is not enough liquid in them that bacteria would be able to grow during that time period, she adds.

10. Don’t prepare food for others if you are sick.

Diarrhea or vomiting could signal you are sick with the norovirus, better known as the stomach flu. (People most commonly become ill from the norovirus during winter months.) The virus can be spread easily by an infected person handling or preparing food. The CDC recommends if you have been sick, wait for two days after symptoms subside before cooking for others. Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water to avoid spreading norovirus.

Editor's note: This article, originally published Dec. 17, 2020, has been updated to reflect new information.

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