The holidays are always a stressful time — but if you're cooking a large meal for your family, the pressure can be even higher.
Every year, an estimated 1 in 6 Americans develop a foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And unfortunately, holiday meals can be a source of these illnesses. Case in point: Outbreaks of Clostridium perfringens, a type of bacteria that's a major cause of food poisoning in the U.S., occur most often in November and December.
While anyone can develop a foodborne illness, people over the age of 65 are even more susceptible to food poisoning than younger people, in part because their immune systems aren't as strong.
"The holidays are filled with a lot of stress, a lot of travel, and a lot of first-time or new cooks," says Robert Gravani, PhD, professor emeritus of food science at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. "You have people preparing food in much larger quantities than they're used to preparing on a daily basis."
1. Plan ahead.
A lot of people don't think about how long it takes certain foods like poultry (chicken and turkey) to thaw out, says Gravani. If you're buying a frozen bird, you should let it thaw in the refrigerator for 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
"If you have a 20-pound turkey, that would take about 4 to 5 days," says Gravani. Once thawed, you can keep the turkey in the fridge for another two days, the organization says.
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2. Don't wash the poultry.
Raw poultry can harbor bacteria like Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Clostridium perfringens, according to the CDC. But you shouldn't wash raw chicken or turkey before you cook it—even if the recipe calls for it. The reason: Washing the bird just spreads the potentially contaminated juices around your sink and counters, says Gravani. Instead, you can kill bacteria simply by cooking the poultry, says the CDC.
"Anything that touches raw poultry should be thoroughly washed and sanitized," says Gravani. "This will prevent some of those bacteria from cross-contaminating foods that may receive little or no cooking at all, like fruits and vegetables, or things that come in contact with [the bacteria], like utensils, cutting boards, and countertops."
3. Clean your hands as you go.
It sounds simple, but it works: Washing your hands correctly can reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses, says the CDC. "Oftentimes, in a busy kitchen, people neglect to do it," says Gravani. "When you're handling any types of raw meats, like seafood, meat, or poultry, your hands should be thoroughly washed before, during, and after meal prep."
4. Use a meat thermometer.
Once your bird is completely thawed, it should be cooked until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the USDA. Always use a meat thermometer to check the temperature, says Gravani, even if your turkey comes with a pop-up timer. (Pop-up timers may not always be 100% accurate, he says.)
"You want to check the deepest and thickest part of the breast, thigh and wing joints, he says. "If those are done, you can be certain that the rest of the turkey is done as well." Remember, too, that if your thermometer hits a bone, you'll get an inaccurate reading, he says.
If you're unsure of how to cook meat, poultry, or egg products, the USDA operates a Meat and Poultry Hotline (1-888-MPHotline) that's open year-round. Food safety experts are available Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time to answer any questions that might come up during meal prep.
5. Refrigerate the leftovers within 2 hours.
Don't let your holiday spread sit out on the table too long. "The rule of thumb is that you don't want to leave food out past the two-hour time window," says Gravani. "That's important because organisms that are present in the food—even after they've been cooked—sometimes can cause some issues."
For example, he says, poultry can contain some bacterial spores that survive the cooking process; if the food stays out at room temperature for long periods of time, the spores can germinate and grow back in high numbers, which can then cause food poisoning.
When you're storing leftovers, break the foods down into small portions (which will cool down faster than larger portions), and stash them in a fridge that's 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. The leftovers should be good for three to four days, according to the USDA.
The USDA also maintains a FoodKeeper app (free, available for iPhone and Android) which tells you how long you can safely store foods and drinks.
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