Mother and daughters prepare Thanksgiving dinner

The holidays are all about bringing family and friends together to celebrate the season and enjoy good food. However, some unwelcome guests like Salmonella, E. coli, Staph aureus and Listeria can ruin an otherwise great party. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 48 million people get sick with a foodborne illness every year, many of them during the holidays. These tiny viruses, parasites and bacteria can make you and your guests severely ill. For vulnerable populations like pregnant women, young children, elderly individuals and people with compromised immune systems, these types of illnesses can be life-threatening.

There are four basic food safety measures that will help you spread cheer this holiday season while keeping you and your guests healthy. Just remember: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill. By following these four basic food safety measures, you and your guests will have a holiday to remember – in a good way!

Don’t let your holidays be spoiled by food-borne illness!

Clean. Be sure to wash your hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling any food. Sing “Happy Birthday” or say the 4-H pledge twice through to be sure you’re washing for the appropriate amount of time. Wash all surfaces that will come into contact with food. This includes cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops. Always wash these items with hot soapy water before and after preparing each food item. It’s always important to rinse fresh fruits and vegetables, including organic, under cool running water but never rinse raw meat or poultry before cooking! This practice is no longer recommended because it can potentially spread bacteria to sinks, countertops and nearby foods. Any harmful bacteria on the surface of raw meat or poultry will be killed when the appropriate internal temperature has been reached.

Separate. Keep raw eggs, meat, poultry, seafood and their juices away from foods that don’t require cooking. It’s important to keep these foods separated while shopping, when storing in the refrigerator and while preparing meals. Consider using one cutting board for cooked foods and one for raw. Never place ready-to-eat or freshly cooked foods on an unwashed surface that has been exposed to raw animal proteins or their juices. This reduces the risk of cross-contamination and therefore reduces the risk of foodborne illness.

Cook. Food is safely cooked when it reaches a high enough internal temperature to kill harmful bacteria. The best way to tell if meat, poultry and fish are cooked to a safe internal temperature is to use a food thermometer. This holiday season, many of us will be preparing turkey. A turkey is thoroughly cooked and safe to consume when a food thermometer inserted into the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast registers 165°F. Whether you choose to stuff your turkey or bake the stuffing in a casserole dish, make sure the internal temperature of the stuffing is also 165°F.

Chill. The refrigerator is not just a safe place to store foods before and after cooking, it’s also a safe place to thaw your holiday turkey because of its consistent temperature of 40°F or less. When defrosting a turkey in the fridge, a good rule of thumb is one day per 4 pounds of bird. So, a 20-pound turkey can take up to five days to thaw in the refrigerator. If you forget to put your frozen turkey into the refrigerator in time, you can defrost your turkey in the kitchen sink under cool running water or in the microwave. However, foods thawed using these two methods should be cooked immediately. Never, defrost food at room temperature as bacteria thrive in these environments. 

Remember safe thawing is just as important as safe cooking.

After everyone has finished eating, refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours instead of leaving them out for people to nibble on. This not only reduces the chances of foodborne illness, it also reduces consumption of excess calories. Keep in mind that travel time is included in the 2-hour rule. So, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold during transportation and service, and always refrigerate leftovers and any type of food that requires refrigeration within 2 hours, including that pumpkin pie.

What can you do to make sure your family and 4-H club members avoid foodborne illness at your next holiday party? Clean all surfaces, including your hands, before, during and after food preparation; separate raw foods from ready-to-eat foods; cook foods to the appropriate internal temperature; and chill leftovers within 2 hours. These four basic food safety measures can make the difference between a positive and negative experience for you and your guests. If you are in an Indiana 4-H club or are a 4-H club leader in Indiana, consider incorporating these food safety measures into a cooking lesson or holiday meal preparation.

If you are interested in additional 4th H for Health resources, contact me at alfrost@purdue.edu for more information. Visit our Indiana 4-H Facebook page (@Indiana4H) and tell us how you keep your family and club safe from foodborne illness.

Don’t forget to “Pledge your health to better living” by implementing food safety at home and at club meetings.

Angie Frost is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue Extension and registered dietitian. She leads a team of county Purdue Extension staff, and collaborates with campus specialists and faculty to provide opportunities for Indiana 4-H youth to learn about healthy living.

Arin Weidner is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue Extension. She supports Indiana 4-H programming by creating technology-facilitated curriculum and learning opportunities. She collaborates with Purdue Extension staff and faculty to develop new ideas for learning in 4-H for youth and adults.

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