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Safely Preparing Your Holiday Meal
Holiday meals are meant for spending time with family and enjoying favorite foods, but they can also be a potential breeding ground for bacteria, says Ronda Elsenbrook, RD, LD, a registered dietitian at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.
"Extra precautions should be taken when handling food for a large meal because the dishes you're preparing aren't likely to be ready at the same time," Ronda says. "To avoid serving food that has been sitting out for too long, and could potentially go bad, plan ahead."
To be sure that food is cooked thoroughly, follow all recipe or package instructions. For turkey and stuffing, use a food thermometer and be sure the internal temperature reaches 165-degrees Fahrenheit.
When cooking with a microwave, check the package instructions for cooking or check the manufacturer's instructions for cooking times.
Prevent Cross Contamination
Any food that contains uncooked animal protein, such as meats, eggs or dairy, can promote bacterial growth.
"You can help prevent cross-contamination by washing your hands, cooking utensils and the surfaces that come into contact with raw foods after each use," says Ronda. "You should consider using different cutting boards for meats and for other foods, just to be safe."
The best way to thaw poultry is in the refrigerator to help ensure the meat remains below 40 degrees. It will take approximately 24 hours per 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. Once the turkey is thawed, it can be refrigerated for 1 to 2 days.
"For faster defrosting, you can submerge the turkey in cold water and change the water every 30 minutes," Ronda says. "Allow about 30 minutes of thawing time per pound." Be sure to cook the turkey immediately after thawing. If the turkey is not too large, a microwave may be used to assist in the defrosting process. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for size and thawing instructions.
If you plan to take food to a family member's house, transport it in a cooler with ice packs so that it can be cooked or reheated when you arrive before the meal. A temperature range between 40 degrees and 140 degrees is considered the "danger zone" because this is when bacteria can multiply rapidly. To minimize the risk of serving spoiled food, serve hot foods above 140 degrees and cold foods below 40 degrees.
Throw away any turkey, stuffing or gravy that has been left at room temperature for more than 2 hours. You can store other leftovers in small portions in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days, or freeze them for up to 6 months.
"Nobody wants to be the one responsible for getting their friends or family sick because they didn't take the proper precautions to safely prepare their food," Ronda concludes. "Follow these steps and have a happy, healthy holiday."