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Preparedness Facts: Holiday food-safety tips

Preparedness Facts: Holiday food-safety tips

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Amanda Ballin

Amanda Ballin

Spending time together in the kitchen is a holiday tradition in my family. As a young child, I could never understand why some of the famous family recipes were not prepared year-round.

After a couple of years of regular kitchen duty, it became obvious that some traditional holiday recipes are prepared not only with a lot of love, but a lot of work and time.

Besides being conscientious of safe food handling as we prepare food, we should also take the time to consider food safety as we serve food — particularly when we serve food buffet-style. Whether your holiday gatherings are large or small this season, take the time to follow these safe food handling practices for the health of your loved ones.

Safe food handling

  • Clean — Remember to wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Proper hand-washing technique is essential to preventing the spread of food-borne illness. Be sure to keep kitchen surfaces, dishes and utensils clean and wash with hot water and soap.
  • Separate — Prevent cross-contamination on cutting surfaces by using separate boards or mats for raw meats, poultry and seafood, a separate one for produce and a separate one for breads or other items. Keep fish and seafood, raw turkey, roasts, hams and other meats and their juices separate from other side dishes when preparing meals. Do not store raw meats above other ready-to-eat foods in the refrigerator because the juices from raw meats can contaminate them. 
  • Cook — Cook meat and poultry to a safe internal temperature and use a food thermometer to ensure that foods are cooked to the appropriate minimum internal temperature. For whole meats (including beef, lamb, veal, pork and ham), this means cooking to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. For ground meat and meat mixtures, this means cooking to at least 160 degrees. For all poultry (including ground poultry), this means cooking to at least 165 degrees. Pasteurized egg products can typically be substituted in recipes containing raw eggs such as eggnog, custard or key lime pie. Be sure that eggs and products containing eggs are thoroughly cooked when serving those at higher risk for food-borne illness. Individuals at higher risk include older adults, pregnant women or persons with chronic illnesses.
  • Chill — Chill food promptly. Keep the fridge at 40 degrees or below to prevent bacteria from growing. Custard pies and other egg dishes should be kept cool. Remember to never defrost food at room temperature.

Considerations for parties/buffets

Divide cooked foods into shallow containers to store in the refrigerator or freezer before serving. Shallow containers will allow for more rapid and even cooling of foods.

Reheat hot foods to 165 degrees. Arrange and serve food on smaller platters rather than on one large platter. Keep the rest of the food hot in alternative heating methods such as in the oven (set at 200-250 degrees), or other heating methods at their serving temperatures of 140 degrees or warmer in slow cookers, warming trays or chafing dishes.

Cold foods should be held at 40 degrees in the refrigerator until serving time. Consider keeping foods cold by nesting dishes in bowls of ice, or use small serving trays and replace them. Replace empty platters rather than adding fresh food to dishes that previously had food on them. Consider that many people may have been touching the dish and also that some remaining food may have been sitting out longer at room temperature.

Food should not sit at room temperature for longer than two hours. Keep track of how long foods have been sitting on the buffet table and discard items that have been sitting out longer than two hours.

Food-borne bacteria

Bacteria are everywhere, but a few types especially like to crash parties. Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Listeria monocytogenes frequent people’s hands and steam tables. And unlike microorganisms that cause food to spoil, harmful or pathogenic bacteria cannot be smelled or tasted. Prevention is safe food handling.

If illness occurs, contact a health professional and describe the symptoms.

Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococcus  (“staph”) bacterium is found on our skin, in infected cuts and pimples and in our noses and throats. It is spread by improper food handling. Prevention includes washing hands and utensils before preparing and handling foods and not letting prepared foods — particularly cooked and cured meats and cheese and meat salads — sit at room temperature more than two hours. Thorough cooking destroys “staph” bacteria, but staphylococcal enterotoxin is resistant to heat, refrigeration and freezing.

Clostridium perfringens

“Perfringens” is called the “cafeteria germ” because it may be found in foods served in quantity and left for long periods of time on inadequately maintained steam tables or at room temperature. Prevention is to divide large portions of cooked foods such as beef, turkey, gravy, dressing, stews and casseroles into smaller portions for serving and cooling. Keep cooked foods hot or cold, not lukewarm.

Listeria monocytogenes

Because Listeria bacteria multiplies, although slowly, at refrigeration temperatures, this bacterium can be found in cold foods typically served on buffets. To avoid serving foods containing Listeria, follow “keep refrigerated” label directions and carefully observe “sell by” and “use by” dates on processed products, and thoroughly reheat frozen or refrigerated processed meat and poultry products before consumption.

Follow these tips to keep your loved ones happy and safe after consuming holiday treats. These tips were provided from the USDA Food Safety Education resources. For more, visit

Amanda Ballin is a public health emergency planner for the Kings County Public Health Emergency Preparedness program.

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