It’s the season of celebrations, gatherings, and special meals together. As we prepare and carry out those celebrations, we need to keep food safety at the top of our mind to keep those we love healthy and safe. This is important in planning, shopping, cooking, serving, and storing. There are four basic steps in food safety that should always be followed, but especially during the holidays. They are clean, separate, cook and chill.
The first step we can take is to clean all surfaces properly and often. Ensure you are washing your hands for at least 20 seconds before, during, and after preparing foods and when handling raw meats and poultry. Wash your cutting boards, utensils, and surfaces with hot soapy water before going to the next task. A solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water may be used to sanitize surfaces and utensils. Don’t forget about cleaning dish towels as well, throw them in your washer on hot. Wait to wash your produce until you are ready to use, otherwise, it may give bacteria the chance to grow and speed up spoilage. To wash your fruits and veggies rinse them under cold running water and remove any dirt. You should wash before peeling use a vegetable scrub on firm produce like melons and cucumbers, and dry with a paper towel. It is not recommended to wash your meat, poultry, or eggs. This will spread germs in your sink that can spread and contaminate other foods and surfaces.
The second step to food safety is separating foods to help prevent cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is when we are transferring harmful bacteria from one food to another. This starts with as you are purchasing food, keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood and their juices away from others. The same goes when you are storing them. Do not store fresh meat above fresh produce, this allows the potential for juices to spread and contaminate the produce. Raw meat should be placed in a sealed container or sealed resealable bag to help prevent any spread of bacteria. You also want to separate using one cutting board for fresh produce and another for protein. Make sure to inspect your cutting boards at each use and make sure to replace them when worn.
The third step to food safety is cooking at proper temperatures. To reach this goal we want to make sure we are using a food thermometer, place it in the thickest part, making sure not to touch the bone. If cooking a steak, we should at least be reaching 145°F, ground meats 160°F, poultry 165°F, and any leftovers 165°F. As important as it is to cook food to the proper temperature, it’s also important is proper holding temperatures if not serving right away. The danger zone is between 140°F and 40°F degrees, so hot foods should be kept above 140°F and cold foods below 40°F.
The final step in food safety is chill. When thawing food, we do not want to thaw on the counter. Plan ahead and thaw in the refrigerator. If you are thawing in cold water, make sure the food item is submerged in a leakproof bag or container and that you are changing the water out every 30 min. If you do not place the product in a leakproof bag you are allowing the spread of germs of that uncooked product, and if water gets in, you are filling that item with water which may affect the texture of the food. Once we have prepared our food, we want to keep it out of the danger zone as soon as we can store them which helps to keep food at its proper temperature. Food should be stored in shallow containers. Keeping your fridge below 40°F and your freezer at zero. Perishable food should be stored within 2 hours and if you are outdoors and if the outside temperature reaches 90°F or above, they should be stored within 1 hour.
When planning for your holiday gathering, double-check with guests to make sure they are attending before purchasing and preparing the menu you have created. Look at each recipe and determine the cooking time it will take to prepare and cook, the oven space needed at one time and the temperature at which food items need to be cooked. This will help determine your cooking schedule and keep hot foods hot and out of the temperature danger zone. Before going to the store, make sure your fridge and freezer have enough space to hold the items. When bringing your groceries home keep fresh produce separate from raw meats and poultry and to keep foods at a safe temperature refrigerate perishables as soon as you get home. Make sure you have a thermometer in your fridge to keep cold foods under 40°F.
Finally, when it comes to serving your guests if you are serving buffet style keep the following tips in mind. Instead of serving one large platter, serve smaller platters and replace them through the serving time to keep temperatures on track. Replace the tray, not just the food to ensure no bacteria had a chance to appear. Even if using food warmers, they do not always keep the heat high enough or distributed it throughout the food. Use a food thermometer to make sure you are holding foods out of the temperature danger zone. For cold foods, keep them in the refrigerator until serving and place them on ice. After gatherings we usually have leftovers. Divide large portions into smaller ones with airtight packaging to keep bacteria out. Refrigerate leftovers and consume within 3-4 days or freeze the day you have cooked that item. For best quality consume within 3 months. Always thaw in the refrigerator and when reheating leftovers make sure to cook until an internal temp of 165 degrees is reached. Following food safety best practices during the holidays and all year long will give you peace of mind and allow you to focus time together and make lasting healthy holiday memories.