Food Safety for the Holidays (and beyond)

Holidays are a time for cooking at home and spending time with family. But for many, food safety isn’t given as much thought as it should. You may be inadvertently putting yourself at risk without even knowing it. Read on to learn how you can keep your friends and family safe this holiday season. 

hand washing

Basic Food Safety 101

  • Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands! 20 seconds with soap and running water (the temperature actually doesn’t matter, it’s the mechanical action combined with the soap) And always remember to wash your hands after handling raw meat, eggs, and flour.
  • Use separate utensils for raw meats and vegetables. Get a new knife, spoon, or spatula to handle meat after it has been cooked to prevent contamination. And remember not to place cooked meat back on the raw meat plate! 
  • Consider who will be served. Populations most at risk are known as YOPIs: Young, old, pregnant, or immunocompromised 
  • Cook foods to the appropriate internal temperature. Consider purchasing a meat thermometer to ensure you are reaching the safe temperatures listed below. 
  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold 
  • Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours of cooking 
  • Onset time of illness can be anywhere from 30 minutes – 28 days, depending on the microorganism, so sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint the source

Meat & Seafood 

We all know that raw meat carries risk to our health. And if you’ve paid any attention to the news lately, you know there have been a growing number of food recalls this year, many containing meat and even turkey just in time for Thanksgiving. While it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure the product is not adulterated (the legal term for contaminated and unsafe), you should always use cooking as the final barrier to keep your family safe.

  1. Be sure to cook meat to the appropriate internal temperature. Don’t rely on color or texture, as this can be misleading. Use a meat thermometer in the center of the product to be sure. Avoid pockets of fat or hitting a bone. 
  2. Keep meats refrigerated or frozen prior to use. Fresh meats are usually only good for a few days at refrigerated temperatures. Serve immediately after cooking and refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours. 
  3. Keep raw meats separate from finished, cooked products and vegetables. Use a separate cutting board and utensils. 
  4. Marinate meats at refrigerated temperatures to prevent bacterial growth. 

Safe Cooking 

FoodSafe Internal Temperature 
Poultry (whole and ground)165 F
Beef (whole muscle)145 F and allow to rest 3 minutes
Beef (ground)160 F
Pork & Ham 145 F and allow to rest 3 minutes 
Eggs 160 F
Fish145 F or until opaque and flaky
ShellfishCook until white/opaque and firm 
Leftovers145 F


How to Thaw Meat & Poultry

  1. Never thaw at room temperature or using hot water! This allows any bacteria present to rapidly multiply. Safe methods include thawing in the refrigerator, using cold water, or the microwave. 
  2. Thawing in the refrigerator is safe and easy, but requires a significant amount of time. Allow 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey. Chicken breasts and ground meat require a full day. After thawing, you may save foods for 1-2 days before cooking, if needed. 
  3. The cold water method is faster, but not so easy. Secure foods in a leak-proof plastic bag and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow about 1 hour for one-pound portions of meat. For larger portions, allow about 30 minutes per pound. Foods thawed with this method should be cooked right away. 
  4. Foods thawed in the microwave should be cooked immediately
  5. You can also cook foods from frozen, but should allow extra time and temp your food to ensure it has reached the appropriate internal temperature. 

I also want to address a few common misconceptions regarding meat. 

  • Don’t rinse your proteins! Research has found there is little to no benefit to rinsing prior to cooking. This practice only works to splash harmful bacteria all over your sink and kitchen. 
  • Don’t assume whole muscle meats like steak only need a surface sear. It is possible the meat has been mechanically tenderized. This means needles have pierced the meat, bringing harmful bacteria from the outside to the center of the product. Check the label to be sure. 

The reason whole muscle meats can be cooked to lower internal temperatures is because the inside of the meat has not been contaminated with bacteria from the surface. Consider this: when animals are slaughtered there is great potential for contamination. Bacteria live all over the hide and intestines of the animal. There are an enormous amount of precautions taken to reduce the risk, but of course, there is still the possibility. When meat is ground, all the bacteria from the surface of the meat is mixed in. This is why I encourage you to cook to 160-165 F! 

Of course, even as a food scientist, I have eaten raw oysters and under cooked beef. It all comes down to educated risk. Analyze where your food is coming from and the knowledge and procedures of those preparing the dish. 

Did you know? Many may dislike pork for being dry and tough. Fortunately, improved veterinary and animal care practices have greatly reduced the risk of Trichinella contamination in pork? Yay, science! The USDA now recommends that pork can be cooked to 145 F. Be sure to also allow to rest for 3 minutes to allow even distribution of heat. 

Dangerous bacteria in meat include E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. These bacteria live in the intestines of animals. E. coli can cause diarrhea and possibly even hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to kidney failure and even death. Salmonella and Campylobacter, often associated with poultry products, causes gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea and vomiting. Most make a full recovery in a few days or weeks, but they can also cause long term effects. For example, Campylobacter can lead to Guillain Barre Syndrome while Salmonella can lead to reactive arthritis  in the joints. 

Seafood should be as fresh as possible and flesh should appear firm and slimy. Fish have this slimy layer to help them glide through the ocean. Gills should appear red, and eyes clear. There should NOT be a fishy odor. Shellfish should be purchased live, when possible. 


Many of us associate food safety risk with meat and eggs. But it’s important to remember there are risks with all foods. 

Fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, all grow outside and exposed to the elements. Dangerous bacteria are ubiquitous in nature, living in the water, soil, and even the air. That’s why you should know where your produce is coming from and ensure the farmers have established food safety systems. Buying whole produce, rather than prepared, generally cuts down on the food safety risk.

Often we do not cook produce, thus why it is critical to keep these foods separate from raw meat. Washing produce removes dirt and pesticide residues so always be sure to rinse thoroughly before use. 

Pasteurization is often associated with dairy products, but don’t forget about vegetables and fruits when purchasing juice. Regulations requiring pasteurization of juice products are in place for a reason. For example, apples may fall on the ground an come into contact with dangerous bacteria such as E. coli prior to processing. If the juice is not pasteurized, you’re putting yourself at risk! Raw does not mean better. 

Side Dishes 

Don’t forget to use safe food handling practices with other foods, as well. Keep hot foods above 140 F during serving. While bacteria are killed during cooking, the spores of some bacteria can survive heat. The spores do not germinate until the food is held at improper temperatures. An example of this is Clostridium perfringens, which can be found in gravies, stews, or casseroles. This bacteria causes stomach cramps and diarrhea. Bacillus cereus can also form spores and causes similar symptoms from rice, pasta, or sauce that has been held at improper temperatures or reheated improperly. 

Potato salad is infamous in the food safety world for unknowingly causing food poisoning. Staphylococcus aureus is found all over human skin and nasal passages and can easily cause contamination in foods with a lot of handling after cooking. Starchy potatoes mixed with a low acid environment, warm temperatures, and time make the perfect environment for this bacteria to grow. Clostridium perfringens is also a possibility in this dish. Wash your hands and remember to control the temperatures of your side dishes. 

If you’re cooking stuffing this year, consider cooking it separate from the turkey. Because the stuffing is inside the bird, it may not reach safe temperatures before the meat surrounding it reaches 165 F. 

Baking & Desserts 

Ahh, dessert, my favorite part of the holidays. Many of us know the dangers of raw eggs. To manage this risk, wash your hands after handling. But don’t forget, raw flour is also a concern. Flour does not undergo any processes to ensure food safety, and was once thought to be inherently safe due to low water activity (free water available for use by bacteria). We now know that flour also poses a risk for contamination with E. Coli. The only way to ensure safety of products with flour and eggs is to bake them! 

Did you know? In countries outside the US, eggs are stored at room temperature. This is because in America, the eggs are washed, which removes the protective outer coating of the shell. 

After Dinner 

Be sure to refrigerate foods below 40 F immediately after dinner is finished, or at least within no more than 2 hours. The danger zone of food is 40-140 F. In this zone, the generation time of bacteria  is only 20 minutes! That means that every 20 minutes, the population of bacteria on your food is doubled. You can see how this can get out of hand very quickly! Often, it only takes a small amount to make you sick.

Most refrigerated leftovers should be consumed within 3-4 days to ensure safety. 

Wash all dinnerware and utensils after each use. And if you’re reheating leftovers the next day? Cook to an internal temperature of 165 F for safety. Remember, pathogenic microorganisms do not cause food spoilage. It’s possible your food is unsafe even if there are no physical signs.

And remember, while it may seem like there are a lot of pathogenic bacteria out there to get you, there are infinitely more good bacteria in the world that do everything from producing delicious cheese to helping you digest food and fending off the bad bacteria 🙂 

Keep these tips in mind this holiday season and you can be confident your friends and family will enjoy a safe and happy holiday! 

For more information on holiday food safety, check out this food safety video from my Alma Mater, Purdue Agriculture!


FDA. 2012. Bad Bug Book 2nd Edition. [accessed 18 Nov 2018].

Purdue Agriculture. 2018. Video. Safe Turkey Perpetration for the Holidays. 

Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures.  [accessed 14 Nov 2018].

Shipman, M. 2018 It’s Not the Mayonnaise: Food Safety Myths & Summertime Food. NC State University. [accessed 18 Nov 2018].

USDA. 2013. The Big Thaw — Safe Defrosting Methods. Food Safety Education. [accessed 18 Nov 2018].

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