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Holiday Cooking: Your Guide to Food Safety

Answers to your questions about storing, preparing, thawing, cooking and serving food (and leftovers) during the holidays

The holiday season is upon us. Last minute gift shopping, over-the-top decorations, visits with extended family members and, of course, lots and lots of food and those extra holiday pounds.

If cooking the holiday food is your job this year, now is the time to start preparing. Safe steps in food handling, preparing, thawing, cooking and storage are essential in order to prevent bacterial contamination of holiday food.

"It is best to assume that any uncooked meat is already contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella enteritidis (Salmonella), Escherichia coli (E. coli) or Listeria monocytogenes (Listeria)," says Diane Andrea, a dietitian at St. Luke's Institute for Health Education. "This way when you prepare to cook the meat, you will be more conscientious while handling it."

According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture, the best way to avoid bacterial contamination is to adhere to the following steps:
  • Wash hands and surfaces often.
  • Do not cross-contaminate foods.
  • Cook food to proper temperatures.
  • Refrigerate perishable food promptly.
The majority of people fail to adhere to the third step: cooking food to the proper temperature. During the holiday season, turkey tends to be the most popular main dish. FSIS recommends following these guidelines when cooking a turkey:
  • Cook the stuffing separately in a 325 degree Fahrenheit oven. It is riskier to cook a stuffed turkey as opposed to one that is not stuffed, because harmful bacteria can survive in stuffing that is not cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Cook the stuffed turkey until the stuffing has reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If you prefer to cook a stuffed turkey, stuff loosely and cook the turkey immediately after stuffing.
  • Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the turkey. Check the temperature in different parts of the turkey, including the wing joint. If the temperature ranges between 165 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit, then the turkey is safe for consumption.
For other holiday meats, such as beef, veal, lamb steaks, roasts and chops, cook to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Ham and pork should be cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Poultry should be cooked to 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

At the end of the meal, discard any food left out at room temperature for more than two hours. Immediately refrigerate or freeze leftovers in shallow containers. Consume leftovers within four days.

Following these simple food safety guidelines will ensure a safer, more enjoyable holiday for you and your family.

St. Luke's Hospital invites you to be connected to your health.

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