Holiday Food Safety

By Ronald G. Rios
Middlesex County Freeholder Chairperson, Committee of Public Health and Education

The holiday season is here and it seems like there is always something to get done. From last-minute shopping to cookie baking, this can be one of the happiest and certainly one of the busiest times of the year. With so much to do to get ready for friends and family, food safety may not be on your mind as you plan your holiday menu—but it should be.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 76 million people get sick from food-borne illnesses every year. During the holidays, food safety can pose an even bigger challenge: There are often more holiday dishes on the table than there is room in the refrigerator.


Taking the time to make sure foods are stored and handled safely is key to enjoying a tasty and healthy holiday. Here are some helpful tips for preparing traditional holiday foods safely:

Fully cooked, ready-to-eat ham must be kept refrigerated. If heated for a meal, heat to internal temperature of 145°F. Use a meat thermometer to be sure the proper internal temperature has been reached. After the meal, cut the ham into thin slices and refrigerate promptly. Slices will keep up to four days in the refrigerator.

Lamb and Beef
Raw lamb or beef should be used within three to five days of purchase. Lamb and beef roasts should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F. Use a meat thermometer to ensure the proper internal temperature. Cut leftovers into thin slices and refrigerate promptly after the meal.

Thaw frozen turkey in the refrigerator. Allow one day for each five pounds of turkey. A 20-pound turkey will take about four days to thaw. (Hint: Remove neck & giblets from inside the bird as soon as possible to hasten thawing.) Do not thaw on the kitchen counter. If you do not have time to thaw in the refrigerator, you can thaw the turkey under cold running water.

Cook fresh turkeys within two days, thawed turkey within four days. Read and follow the cooking directions on the label. Cook turkey until it is done (165°F). Do not slow cook overnight at low temperatures or partially cook. Pop-up thermometers are to be used only as a guide to doneness.

Stuffing should not be prepared a day ahead and the turkey should not be stuffed until it is ready to cook. A quicker, safer method is to cook the stuffing separately in a casserole, using some of the pan juices to flavor and moisten the stuffing.

Holiday or Party Buffets
Buffet service, where foods are left out for long periods, leaves the door open for bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Some important things to remember:

The Two-Hour Rule: Foods should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours. Discard anything there two hours or more.

Keep Hot Foods HOT and Cold Foods COLD: Hot foods should be held at 135°F or warmer. On the buffet table, use chafing dishes, slow cookers and warming trays. Cold foods should be held at 41°F or colder. Nest dishes in bowls of ice or use small serving trays and replace them.

Safe Food Handling: Always wash your hands before and after handling food. Keep your kitchen, dishes and utensils clean. Always serve food on clean plates, not those previously holding raw meat and poultry.

Use Shallow Containers: Divide cooked foods into shallow containers to store in the refrigerator or freezer until serving. Reheat hot foods to 165°F.

Arrange and serve food on several small platters rather than on one large platter. Keep the rest of the food hot in the oven (set at 200-250°F) or cold in the refrigerator until serving time. REPLACE empty platters rather than adding fresh food to a dish that already had food in it.

Following these simple tips helps assure your family and guests a safe holiday meal. If you have any questions regarding food safety, please contact the Middlesex County Public Health Department Inspection Division at 1-732-745-3100.

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