Tips for Preparing & Transporting Food This Holiday Season

OK, let’s get the rough stuff out of the way first. The CDC tells us the following happens every year in America: 

  • 48 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses. That’s one out of every six of us.
  • 128,000 people are hospitalized because of foodborne illnesses.
  • 3,000 people die from foodborne illnesses.

A foodborne illness is sometimes called “food poisoning.” It is caused by eating or drinking something contaminated with germs. Such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Or chemicals including toxins or metals. Often we cannot smell or taste these contaminants.

Sometimes we purchase food and beverages that are already contaminated. That’s due to poor quality control. Other times we allow contaminants to form and grow through improper care of them.

Those most susceptible to food poisoning are adults 65 and older, children under 5, and pregnant women. As well as people with health issues. Or those who take medications that weaken their body’s immune system.

You can prevent food contamination

The good news is there are a number of things we can do to help prevent foodborne illnesses.    

Food is a big part of the holidays. A successful holiday gathering is dependent upon food being fresh, tasty, and safe. 

And in many homes, gatherings are rather large. Parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins… you get the idea.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holiday gatherings are on the horizon. Now is the time to look at how we can prepare, transport, and consume food safely. Without worrying about loved ones becoming ill.

Because nothing will spoil a holiday gathering like food that makes people ill or worse.

Foodborne illnesses are common

Unfortunately, this happens more often than we think. We’re especially vulnerable to these foodborne illnesses during the holiday season. Because it’s also the cold and flu season.

And because table spreads frequently include more dishes than there is room for in a standard refrigerator.  

Here are some recommendations for preparing and transporting food safely during the holidays. Of course, these tips are helpful anytime of the year.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food.     
  • Cook food thoroughly. Foods such as meat, chicken, turkey, seafood, and eggs can carry germs. Make sure they’ve been cooked to a safe internal temperature. 
  • Keep food out of the danger zone. Between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria can grow rapidly. Refrigerate or freeze any perishable food within two hours. 
  • Use pasteurized eggs for dishes containing raw eggs. Including eggnog and Caesar dressing. Harmful germs can live on the inside and outside of otherwise normal-looking eggs. 
  • Keep foods separated. Prevent juices from meat, chicken, turkey, seafood, and eggs from leaking onto other foods. Keep them in sealed plastic bags or containers. 
  • Thaw your turkey safely. Two ways to do this are in the refrigerator and in a sink of cold water. If you’re using the latter method, change the water every 30 minutes.
  • Depending on how long you travel to reach your holiday gathering, make sure to keep your prepared food cold or hot along the way. Such as in a cooler or portable fridge that can do both. 
  • Refrigerate leftovers promptly. When you’re feeling as stuffed as the turkey, it’s tempting to lounge around the dinner table. Get leftovers in the fridge within two hours of preparation (not within two hours of eating). 

And here’s an odd one. Robert Gravani is professor emeritus for food science at Cornell University. He says letting a dog lick a plate is better than returning a grilled steak to the plate it was on while raw.

Letting Fido lick a plate is “mostly OK,” he said. While returning a grilled streak to its original platter and then eating it is “very risky.” He also emphasizes the importance of washing produce properly. And not consuming a pizza for breakfast that sat out all night.

Keep that turkey frozen

Many people eat turkey during holiday gatherings. But they seldom cook turkeys during other times of the year. So it’s easy to forget some of the basic rules.

Regardless of whether you transport a turkey to a holiday celebration or make it at home for your guests, here are some reminders:

  • Turkeys must be kept frozen until you are ready to start the thawing process. This can be an issue due to freezer space a turkey needs. But it’s important. 
  • When a turkey is in the danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria causing foodborne illness can start growing. 
  • It’s important to wash your hands and all surfaces that have been in contact with the raw turkey or its juices. 

Avoid cross contamination

Carrie Masterson is a ServSafe certification course teacher with Penn State Extension. Here’s what she says.

“I’ve seen where turkeys have been stacked up in pyramids in those freezers and that really presents a risk factor. Because the ones on top are further away from the freezer. When you’re buying your turkey, it should be rock solid frozen. 

“You want to make sure that when you’re preparing the raw turkey that you are very careful not to splash or spray any of the raw juices onto other foods or surfaces that other foods will come in contact with.

“It’s really best to prepare the ready-to-eat foods before you prepare any raw foods, to decrease the risk of cross contamination.”    

Your delivery strategy

Before we conclude, let’s revisit transporting food for a moment. As mentioned, you want your hot/warm foods to stay that way. And the same for your cold foods.

Keep hot foods 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher by wrapping them in foil. Or carry them in insulated wrappers or containers designed to keep food hot.

Keep your cold foods at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower by placing them in a cooler or insulated containers with cold packs. 

Once you arrive at your destination, ask the host to place your cold food in a refrigerator and hot foods in an oven. Use a food thermometer to ensure they remain at the designated temperatures.  

Please chime in

Now it’s your turn. I’m willing to bet you have some tried & true holiday dinner tips for our readers. 

Whether you’re cooking at home for guests you will entertain or transporting food with you to a gathering. 

I hope you’ll take the time to include a few of your tips in the comments section below. 

Who knows? You may save a fellow patriot from a foodborne illness and a bad holiday gathering experience.

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