CLEMSON – Enjoying delicious meals with family and friends is something many people will do during the holiday season, but are you prepping your meals in a way that ensures you’re not creating a food disaster?

Take steps to ensure your holiday dinners don't become food disasters.

Take steps to ensure holiday dinners don’t become food disasters.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Food safety experts with Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences’ Cooperative Extension Service can help you avoid spreading foodborne illnesses while creating holiday cheer.

1. Continuously wash your hands and keep them clean

People underestimate the importance of simply washing their hands the correct way, said Kimberly Baker, state consumer food safety program coordinator.

“Unwashed hands cause most foodborne illnesses so it is important for people who are preparing food to always keep their hands clean,” Baker said. “Wash hands in hot soapy water and rub them together for 20 seconds after touching raw meat, poultry or seafood, as well as before handling ready-to-eat foods.”

Baker also advises when handling raw meat, don’t forget to thoroughly clean your hands around and under your fingernails.

“This is sometimes a forgotten area where raw meat or juices can hide,” she said.

After washing, use a clean cloth towel or paper towel to thoroughly dry hands.

2. Be aware of cross-contamination

Keeping counters and equipment clean is important in helping prevent cross-contamination, said Adair Hoover, Extension food safety and nutrition agent.

“Wash cutting boards, knives, utensils and countertops in hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before going on to the next one,” Hoover said. “Use one cutting board for raw meat, poultry or seafood and a different cutting board for ready-to-eat foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Also, sanitize cutting boards and other surfaces that have been in contact with raw meat, poultry or seafood.”

To sanitize kitchen items, Hoover recommends immersing them in a solution of 2 tablespoons of liquid, unscented, chlorine bleach per gallon of warm, not hot, water and leave for several minutes. Plastic cutting boards also can be sanitized in a dishwasher using the wash and dry cycle.

Sanitize non-metal kitchen sponges by placing those that are still wet in a microwave oven for one minute. Avoid burns by allowing the sponge to cool before using it. You can also put them through the wash and dry cycle of a dishwasher.

Use paper towels to clean up raw meat and poultry spills on kitchen counters and other surfaces. If cloth towels are used, do not reuse them if they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry juices until the towels are washed using the hot cycle of the washing machine and dried in the dryer.

Thoroughly wash cutting boards with hot soapy water after each use. They should be sanitized occasionally by using 1 ½ teaspoons of liquid chlorine bleach per one quart of water. Flood the surface with the bleach solution and let it stand for several minutes. Dry fully before using. It’s important to replace battered cutting boards. Once they become excessively worn or develop hard-to-clean grooves, they should be discarded.

3. Make sure food is fully cooked

Use food thermometers to make sure meat and poultry are thoroughly cooked. Use an instant-read food thermometer to check the internal temperature toward the end of the cooking time but before the food is expected to be done. The food thermometer should be placed in the thickest part of the food and should not be touching bone, fat or gristle.

“Bacteria can survive on foods that are not cooked properly,” said Marie Hegler, Extension food safety and nutrition agent. “Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods. Cook all poultry to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Insert the thermometer the full length of the sensing area, past the indentation or “dimple.” Check egg dishes, meat casseroles and irregularly shaped foods such as roasts, in several places. Compare your thermometer reading to the recommended internal temperatures in the bulleted list below. Make sure to clean the stem of the food thermometer with hot soapy water before and after each use, but do not immerse the head in water. Follow the instructions for the specific type of food thermometer being used. Use only oven-safe thermometers in the oven during cooking. Remove food from the oven to test with instant-read thermometers.

The minimum internal temperatures of foods should be:

  • 145 degrees F for fish steaks or fillets. All cuts of beef, lamb, pork and veal. For both safety and quality, allow meat to rest for four minutes before carving or eating;
  • 155 degrees F for ground, mechanically tenderized or injected meats as well as ground fish and egg dishes; and
  • 165 degrees F for poultry and wild game, stuffing and casseroles.

If cooking a turkey, Hegler said to make sure it is completely thawed before cooking. Allow 24 hours for every four to five pounds of turkey thawed in the refrigerator. A 20-pound turkey will take between four and five days to completely thaw in the refrigerator. She also said cooking overnight at a low setting (200 to 250 degrees F) is unsafe.

“Bacteria can easily grow under these conditions,” Hegler said. “Roast a turkey in a preheated oven set at 325 degrees. The color of meat and poultry does not show if it is safely cooked. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods and cook all poultry to at least 165 degrees. Place the food thermometer in the thickest part of the poultry, not touching bone, fat or gristle.”

4. Safely store leftovers

Now that the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner is cooked and everyone has eaten, safely store the leftovers to enjoy the meal for a few more days. Julie Northcutt, professor and Extension program team leader for Clemson’s Food Safety, Nutrition and Health Program Team, said it is important to store food at proper temperatures.

“Food that requires refrigeration should be put in the refrigerator as soon as possible,” Northcutt said. “It is important to use the ‘two-hour rule’ for leaving items out at room temperature that require refrigeration. It does not take long for bacteria to grow. When putting away leftovers, go ahead and portion them out into smaller allotments and put them in the refrigerator as soon as possible. This will help prevent food poisoning.”

The two-hour rule for leftovers means don’t leave food out in room temperature for longer than two hours. The goal is to minimize the time food is in the “danger zone,” between 40 and 140 degrees when bacteria multiply and the risk of food poisoning is increased. Other tips for making sure leftovers are kept safe include:

  • Always keep a thermometer in the refrigerator. Make sure that the temperature in your refrigerator is no higher than 40 degrees F.
  • Within two hours after cooking, remove the stuffing from the turkey and carve the meat off the bones. Put leftovers in a shallow container, no more than 2 inches deep, to allow quick cooling.
  • Never put a big pot of hot food in the refrigerator — it will take too long to cool down to safe temperatures.
  • Store leftovers in a refrigerator or freezer. It is best to use refrigerated leftovers within four days. If you won’t be eating your leftovers in that time, put them in the freezer where they will keep safely.