Food Handling

During the holidays the meals you prepare may be larger than what you are used to cooking. Often, food is left setting out of the refrigerator while guests continue to make their selections. However, it is important to make sure food is handled safely during preparation and stored properly after your meal is served. 

You can make the holidays festive, fun, delicious and safe by following these simple guidelines: 

  • Wash your hands - Use soap and warm water, washing your hands for at least 20 seconds before you handle food and then again for 20 seconds after handling food. Making sure your hands are clean is the most important step you can take to prevent the spread of disease. Washing your hands often and thoroughly when you are preparing food also protects your family and guests from food contamination.
  • Make certain your cutting board is clean before using - Raw meat and fruits and vegetables should never be cut using the same cutting board or surface without cleaning inbetween. Wash the board or surface thoroughly with hot soapy water and then rinse in hot water before and after each use. Also, remember not to use the same knife when cutting raw meat, fruits, and vegetables, without first cleaning and rinsing the knife in hot soapy water.
  • Don't leave food at room temperature for more than two hours - It is very important that food not be left unrefrigerated for more than two hours -- this includes the time it takes to prepare the food as well as serving time. Foods that you need to be especially careful with include meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy products.
  • Keep hot food HOT and cold food COLD - Hot foods should be served at a temperature above 165°F. Crock-pots and other special serving dishes can be used to keep these foods hot while they are being served. Cold foods, especially eggnog and other foods that include eggs or milk, should be kept cold, below 40 degrees to insure the food item remains safe.
  • Thaw food in the refrigerator - Food should never be left on the kitchen counter or stovetop to thaw. Bacteria can grow as the food begins to melt. You need to remember that small items will thaw overnight, however, larger items such as a frozen turkey or ham, will take one day of thawing in the refrigerator for every five pounds.
  • Be careful with leftovers - All leftovers from your holiday meal should be covered and stored in your refrigerator within two hours of preparation. Leftovers should be separated into shallow containers and used within the next few days. Leftover meats or grains such as pasta need to be used within three to four days of preparation. Gravy and sauces need to be used within one to two days of preparation. If you don't feel you will be able to use your leftovers in that time, you should freeze them after they have been served. To serve the food again, you will need to reheat it to 165°F. Soups, sauces, and gravies should be boiled before serving.

Return to the Safety Resource Center