Over the holidays, millions will gather with family and friends to enjoy a wonderful meal. Because many of these holiday gatherings involve large numbers of people, it is important to remember food safety when preparing, serving and eating a holiday meal to help avoid foodborne illness. One food safety mistake, such as an undercooked bird or unwashed hands, could make a lot of people sick and create an unpleasant holiday.

To help you plan and safely prepare for holiday meals, the following are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions in regard to safe holiday meal preparation.

What are the most important steps to holiday meal food safety?

  • Wash your hands often with warm, soapy water!
  • Always wash your hands before:
    • handling foods;
    • setting the table; and
    • eating.
  • Always wash your hands after:
    • handling raw meats and poultry;
    • using the toilet or changing diapers; and
    • handling pets.
  • Avoid cross-contamination: this occurs when one contaminated food product or its juices comes in contact with another product, contaminating both of them. Some good ways to avoid cross-contamination are:
    • Always wash hands, cutting boards, utensils and dishes with hot, soapy water between handling different foods;
    • Keep raw meats and their juices separated and covered;
    • Cook to proper temperatures (temperatures for specific items will be listed below); and
    • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold!

When should I buy a turkey?

  • A frozen turkey can be bought anytime before cooking as long as it stays frozen.
  • A fresh turkey should be bought 1-2 days before cooking. Keep it refrigerated at or below 40oF until cooking.

What are some safe ways to thaw a turkey?

Generally there are three safe ways to thaw a turkey:

  • In a refrigerator;
  • In cold water (changing the water every 30 minutes); and
  • In a microwave.

Never thaw raw meat at room temperature!

How much time should I allow for thawing a turkey?

  • Refrigerator
    • In a refrigerator, it takes about 24 hours of thaw time for every 5 pounds of turkey.
  • Cold Water
    • It takes about 30 minutes per pound to thaw a turkey in cold water.
  • Microwave
    • Check the microwave's owner's manual for power and capacity instructions for best thawing results, and to be sure the turkey is not too big for your microwave.

To avoid cross-contamination when thawing, always be sure juices from the turkey do not come in contact with other foods.

Can I always trust the pop-up indicators to be sure my turkey is done safely?

No. Although most pop-ups are fairly accurate, it is always a good idea to double check the internal temperature of the turkey in several places with a food thermometer to be sure it has reached the safe temperature of 180°F throughout, especially deep in the thigh joint.

What temperature should stuffing reach to be considered safe?

The safest way to cook stuffing is outside the turkey; however, many people prefer cooking it inside the turkey. Whether you cook the stuffing in or out of the turkey, it should reach 165°F. If you do cook the stuffing inside the turkey, you should mix the ingredients right before filling the turkey. It is a good idea to stuff loosely to allow even cooking.

What about safety with hams?

  • If you buy a fully-cooked ham you can eat it cold or heat it to 140°F. Store-wrapped, fully-cooked hams should be eaten within 3-5 days.
  • Cook-before-eating hams should always be heated to at least 160°F.

What should I do if my meal is ready and my guests are going to be late?

If your guests are running late, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. If they will be several hours late, refrigerate your foods immediately and reheat them to 165°F when you're ready to serve.

How long can meat and cheese trays stay out, unrefrigerated?

For freshness and quality it is best not to leave meat and cheese trays out more than a few (four) hours. A good practice is to make and refrigerate several small trays and place them out as needed. If your meat and cheese has stayed out longer than four hours it should be discarded. Remember to always have a utensil available for serving finger foods to avoid contamination from dirty hands.

When should I refrigerate my leftovers?

As soon as possible! It is best to put leftovers in the refrigerator within 2 hours after cooking. Large cuts of meat and large quantities of food should be portioned into smaller servings and placed into shallow containers for faster cooling. Be sure to cover and date leftovers. Leftovers should be used within four days. Large quantities can be frozen for later use. Reheat leftovers to 165°F.

If I have a lot of leftovers, is it ok to leave them out for nibbling?

Never leave leftovers out for nibbling as dirty hands could contaminate the product. Remember that leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours after cooking.

Here's a helpful hint: to avoid having a lot of leftovers, the general rule of thumb is to allow 1 lb of turkey, whether frozen or fresh, per guest. If you buy a pre-stuffed frozen turkey, allow for 1 lb per guest.

What should I do if a guest has food allergens?

Food allergens affect approximately two percent of the American population. The eight most common food allergens (these eight make up 90% of all food allergens) are fish, shell fish, soy products, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and eggs. If you know of guests who may have allergens, be sure to let them know of any food ingredients used that may cause a reaction, or alter ingredients so they are suitable. Never encourage or pressure someone with allergens to try or eat foods that could cause a reaction.

What are some other things to keep in mind when cooking meats?

The following information is from the USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service's website, where additional information can also be found.

Leaving the paper- or plastic-wrapped giblets inside the turkey during cooking

Some giblets are paper wrapped before being inserted into the poultry body cavity. In this case, there would be no concern if the giblets are accidentally cooked inside the bird to a safe temperature. If giblets were packed in a plastic bag, and the bag has been altered or melted by the cooking process, do not use the giblets or the poultry because harmful chemicals may have migrated into the surrounding meat. If the plastic bag was not altered, the giblets and poultry should be safe to use as long as the meat is fully cooked.

Neglecting to take the plastic protector off ham bones

The plastic bone guard covering the exposed bone is used to keep the bone from breaking the outer wrap. If left on the meat during cooking, a 325 or 350 degree oven temperature may not melt the plastic but still give off an abnormal chemical odor or taste. Cutting away the meat around the exposed area will not necessarily solve this potential food safety problem because the penetration of the chemical into the meat will not be known. In meat is cooked in a closed container, the chemicals may penetrate the entire piece of meat. USDA advises not to eat the ham; discard it.

"Cooking" the absorbent paper and plastic pad which can be packaged under meat in foam trays

The absorbent pad is clearly not intended to be cooked; however, if this happens and the packaging materials remain unaltered (that is, do not melt or come apart), the cooked meat will not pose an imminent health hazard. If the packaging materials have melted or changed shape in some other way, do not use the product.

"To net or not" - leaving ham or turkey netting on during cooking

Sometimes, when removing the packaging around a ham or turkey, consumers find an inner netting surrounding the meat product. Its purpose is to hold boned meat and poultry in a specific shape. The netting can be fabric, plastic, or plastic and rubber. The fabric netting can be used with food. If may burn a bit if high heat is used, but there is no concern of transferring unsafe chemicals to the meat. Some plastics or plastic and rubber may be used and are made specifically for use in cooking. However, the label must have specific cooking directions for the meat to be safe to eat.

Where can I find more holiday meal food safety information?