How to Ensure Your Holiday Dinner Guests Leave Smiling Not Sick

Last updated on March 12th, 2018 at 09:10 am

thanksgiving_dinnerEvery host wants guests to leave the table with a full stomach, not a stomach bug. Unfortunately, 76 million cases of food-borne diseases occur in the United States each year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 325,000 of those cases result in a trip to the emergency room. This time of year, with heaps of food and extra guests, it’s all too easy to contaminate meals with food-borne bugs or a nasty flu virus.

Luckily, there are a few simple safe-cooking precautions that will keep your friends and family safe and healthy this holiday season. Barbara Kowalcyk, director of food safety at The Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention in Grove City, Pa., shares her tips to help prevent both food poisoning and germ-sharing.

At the Store

Keep raw meats and poultry separate from packaged foods in your cart. The outside of meat packages can be contaminated with bacteria, and touching them means you can easily spread germs and bacteria to other products. “Don’t be afraid to use a plastic bag from the produce department as a glove when handling meats,” says Kowalcyk. “A little precaution now can save you from a big mess later.”

At Home

Proper preparation is the key to safe cooking. Before cooking any meals, clean your hands and all work surfaces. Designate different cutting boards for different types of foods to help prevent cross-contamination. It’s also important to pay attention to what you’re doing. “Don’t go from cutting a chicken to making a salad. Wash your hands,” says Kowalcyk.

Knowing which foods to wash also prevents illness. Always wash the tops of cans and all fruits and vegetables. “People are often surprised to learn that something like a salad can make them sick,” says Kowalcyk. She recommends skipping prepackaged bagged leaves and buying the whole head instead. Remove the outside leaves as well as any with tears, which are the most likely to be contaminated.

Don’t put meat and poultry in the sink. “It doesn’t need to be washed,” says Kowalcyk. Washing raises the risk of contaminating other surfaces in your kitchen. It only takes between three and 10 microbes to start an infection (more than a million can fit on the head of a pin). Just a few drops of dirty water can really wreck havoc on your kitchen. Washing the food won’t kill bacteria, but cooking your food to the proper temperature will.

If You’re Sick

If you’re fighting the flu or a cold, you should stay out of the kitchen altogether. Give instructions to another family member or consider wearing a mask as you prepare the food. If nothing else, wash your hands more often — especially after you cough or sneeze.

In the Oven

Testing meat for color, touch or until juices run clear is not a good way to tell if food is done. “Testing the internal temperature is the only way to know if it’s cooked to a safe temperature,” says Kowalcyk. She recommends you ditch the dial thermometers and pop-up buttons included with some prepackaged turkeys since both may not be calibrated properly. Instead, use a digital thermometer to test meat at its thickest point and poultry at the joint between the thigh and leg.

The United States Department of Agriculture recommends cooking foods to the following minimum temperatures to ensure safe consumption:

  • Beef, Pork, Veal & Lamb (steak, chops, roasts): 145 F (62.8 C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes
  • Ground meats:  160 F  (71.1 C)
  • Ham, fresh or smoked (uncooked): 145 F (62.8 C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes
  • Fully Cooked Ham (to reheat):  Reheat cooked hams packaged in USDA-inspected plants to 140 F (60 C) and all others to 165 F (73.9 C)
  • All Poultry (breasts, whole bird, legs, thighs, and wings, ground poultry, and stuffing):  165 F (73.9 C)
  • Eggs: 160 F  (71.1 C)
  • Fish & Shellfish: 145 F (62.8 C)
  • Leftovers:   165 F (73.9 C)
  • Casseroles:   165 F (73.9 C)

click here to access a printable version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart

At the Table

Don’t let food sit out for more than two hours. This includes the time it may be on the counter or table before you serve it. Keep hot foods hot in the oven and cold foods cold in the refrigerator. “Don’t let your foods get to room temperature,” says Kowalcyk. “That’s where bacteria likes to grow. And the longer it sits out, the more you increase your risk of getting sick.”

After the Meal

Transfer warm leftovers to shallow dishes so they’ll cool down evenly and quickly in the fridge. Also keep in mind that the temperature increases in an overstuffed fridge, so you may need to adjust yours for a few days after a big meal to make sure it stays at a safe 40 F.

The Next Day

Everyone loves leftovers, but not everyone should reach for the cold turkey. Those vulnerable to illness — young children, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions — should reheat leftovers to 165 F before eating them. “Most people will be OK, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry,” says Kowalcyk.

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Editor’s Note:  This post first appeared on Pediatric Safety in November of 2010.  The chart has been updated to include the most current information available on the minimum safe internal temperatures for food.   If  you’re preparing dinner for guests, print a copy and keep it handy.  Wishing all of our readers a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

About the Author

Julie Bean is a writer and editor based in New York City. She has covered health, nutrition, technology and lifestyle topics for numerous publications, including Every Day With Rachael Ray, Weight Watchers and Time Out New York Kids.

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