Food Prep Tips For Healthy Holidays

The holidays are here, which means there’s plenty of comforting food to be found. And since fewer than 5% of adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity each day, it’s fairly likely you might be found curled up on the couch, indulging in your favorite treat. If you’re health-conscious, you might be thinking about off-setting your holiday eating with exercise. After all, there’s cardio and strength equipment waiting to be used at your gym or even in your own house — and fitting in a good workout on a regular basis throughout the season can help you feel happier and more confident.

But exercise may not be the only activity you need to prioritize in order to stay healthy this season. At your holiday table, food contamination could turn a festive celebration into a shared nightmare (before Christmas). If you plan on preparing a dish to pass or hosting a holiday meal at your home this year, you might want to pay attention to these food safety tips.

Thaw Correctly

If your traditional holiday meal includes a turkey, you need to leave enough time for it to defrost safely. There have been numerous reports in the last couple of weeks about harmful bacteria like salmonella being linked to turkey consumption. When you thaw the bird incorrectly, it can make it more likely for the salmonella to make someone sick.

When you forget to leave enough time to thaw a frozen turkey in the fridge and opt instead to do so at room temperature, you could allow any present salmonella bacteria towards the outside of the turkey (which will thaw faster than the internal meat) to produce toxins. Once that happens, even cooking the turkey to the recommended temp could still allow the toxin to survive (although the bacteria itself will die).

Frozen turkeys need to be defrosted for at least three days in your fridge before cooking (or even longer for larger birds). If it’s not totally defrosted by the holiday, you can place it in your sink, breast-side down and in its wrapper, and cover it with cold water. Every half hour, change the water and rotate the turkey until it’s totally thawed. Keep in mind that putting the turkey directly under the water to “wash” it can actually make the spread of bacteria more likely — so refrain from this practice.

Don’t Cross-Contaminate

Cross-contamination occurs when a food like raw meat or raw eggs is prepped on a surface that’s then used for other tasks, potentially contaminating food through the spread of bacteria. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six Americans becomes ill every year due to the consumption of contaminated foods or beverages.

If you have limited counter space and only a couple of cutting boards, you need to sanitize these surfaces thoroughly after handling raw or potentially dangerous foods. Wearing gloves may be a good precaution to take, as well, provided you remember to remove them correctly and promptly after working with certain food items. Don’t forget to give your fridge handles and your faucet the once-over with a sanitizing wipe afterward. You should also keep raw meet on the lower shelf of your fridge; not only will it stay cooler there, but it’ll also prevent anything from dripping onto other foods. Be sure to wash your hands frequently while cooking — and if you’re someone who regularly uses their phone or their earbuds while cooking, sanitize them and wash your hands before touching them every time.

Know When to Serve and Store

Temperature plays an all-important role in making sure your holiday meal is a success. You should always use a meat thermometer to ensure your main dish has reached a temperature that’s safe for consumption. For a turkey, that’s 165 degrees Fahrenheit, while beef is considered safe at 160. Don’t forget about resting time, either. It might seem like a formality, but it’s actually essential to ensure any harmful germs are destroyed. A full list of safe minimum cooking temperatures can be found on the Foodsafety.gov website.

Once the meal is over, you’ll still need to have safety on the brain. You should never put hot or even warm leftovers directly into the fridge, as this can lead to bacterial growth. Any leftovers should be left out, uncovered in small containers, to cool to temperatures below 135 degrees Fahrenheit. They should then be placed into the fridge uncovered; once they’ve completely cooled to the refrigerator’s temperatures, they can be safely covered up. If you’re reheating those leftovers the next day, they need to reach temperatures of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to keep your loved ones safe.

There’s a lot to think about this holiday season, but the health of your family and friends should be at the forefront. With these tips, you’ll be well-prepared to serve a memorable meal that’ll only delight.

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