What’s better than getting to enjoy some of our favourite seasonal dishes over the holidays? It’s that time of year when we look forward to savouring some truly delicious meals with our loved ones — and it’s also that time of year when the risk of food poisoning can be particularly high.
When preparing and storing large amounts of food for the holidays, more food safety challenges can arise. Safe handling and cooking practices should be prioritized to help make sure harmful bacteria levels are kept low and help prevent food poisoning and serious illness. Here are some of our top tips to help ensure you’re cooking your favourite holiday dishes properly — so the only thing you’ll have to worry about is where you can comfortably lounge when the food coma hits!
General holiday food safety tips
Whether you’re planning to cook a big bird, serve a succulent ham, indulge in a seafood platter or enjoy another holiday dish, always follow these general food safety tips to minimize the risk of food-borne illness.
Prioritize good hand hygiene
Always wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling different foods, and after using the washroom, touching pets, taking out the trash, changing a diaper, smoking, coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
When thawing frozen meats, poultry or seafood in the refrigerator, always place them on the bottom shelf so that they do not accidentally contaminate already cooked or ready-to-eat foods. Use a different cutting board for raw meats, poultry or seafood from one used for washed produce or ready-to-eat foods, and always clean and sanitize a cutting board that held raw food before placing cooked food on it.
Check the temperature of cooked foods
Use a calibrated thermometer to confirm that cooked foods have reached their safe cooking temperature. When checking the temperature, insert the thermometer away from bone, fat or gristle and into the thickest area of the food, and be sure to take the temperature of different parts of the food. If it’s not yet cooked to its proper temperature, continue to cook it. Remember to wash thermometers that were used on raw or partially cooked foods in between temperature checks!
Be mindful of dietary restrictions
Your guests may have allergies or intolerances to certain foods. Make sure you’re aware of any dietary restrictions when planning your meal, ensure you are following proper procedures to prevent cross-contamination, and to be extra careful, remove any dishes from your menu that could have severe and even life-threatening consequences for those who are affected.
Remember that for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children under five and pregnant women, certain foods like soft cheeses and raw seafood pose higher risks of food-borne illness and severe symptoms.
Safe cooking process for popular holiday dishes
Intending to serve a turkey for your holiday feast? Be sure to plan for cooking the bird well ahead of time! The safest way to thaw any food is in the refrigerator, and it takes approximately 24 hours to thaw every five pounds of turkey.
When cooking the turkey, preheat your oven to at least 165°C / 325°F and place the thawed turkey breast-side-up in a shallow roasting pan. Turkeys must reach an internal temperature of at least 82°C / 180°F to help prevent the risk of food poisoning. Depending on its weight and whether it is stuffed, the turkey can take between three to six hours to reach its safe cooking temperature.
It’s best to cook stuffing separately since it poses food safety risks if cooked inside the turkey. This is because reaching the required internal temperature can take longer, it can prevent the meat from reaching its required temperature and the stuffing absorbs the raw poultry juices — turning it into a high-risk food.
To be safe, we recommend that stuffing be cooked separately to a minimum internal temperature of 74°C / 165°F on the stove top or in the oven in its own cooking dish. To keep yourself from being too busy on the day of your holiday gathering, you can also prepare the stuffing a day or two ahead of time — just be sure to refrigerate it promptly after it has cooled down in shallow, food-grade containers. When reheating, the stuffing should reach a temperature of 74°C / 165°F or above.
HAM & ROAST BEEF
Other popular main dishes served over the holidays are ham and roast beef. When cooking other meat dishes, be sure that they reach a minimum internal temperature of:
- 71°C / 160°F for ham
- 63°C / 145°F for all whole muscle beef and veal cuts like steaks and roasts
- 71°C / 160°F for ribs, roasts and pork chops, as well as ground pork, beef and veal
Cook fish to a minimum internal temperature of 70°C / 158°F and shellfish to 74°C / 165°F. Some signs that seafood is cooked include fish flaking easily, the flesh of shrimp, crab, lobster and scallops becoming firm and opaque, and the shells of clams, mussels and oysters opening during cooking (throw out those that don’t open). While these are good ways to estimate that the seafood is cooked, always use a calibrated thermometer to confirm it has reached the safe cooking temperature.
Spoiled seafood will have a strong sour, rancid or fishy odour — or an odour that smells like ammonia — after cooking. If you detect these odours in a cooked seafood dish, throw it away.
While it may be tempting to try uncooked cookie dough or raw batters and frostings as you bake, remember that raw eggs and uncooked flour can be contaminated with harmful bacteria that can make you sick if consumed. Raw eggs can contain Salmonella bacteria and uncooked flour can be contaminated with E. coli, so be sure that you thoroughly cook your baked goods.
Prevent vulnerable groups from eating dishes that include raw eggs as an ingredient, as they have a higher risk of getting food poisoning from these foods. It’s best to prepare dishes that contain raw eggs right before you consume them, and refrigerate them immediately at 4°C or below to prevent bacteria growth. Dishes include:
- mousses and tiramisu
- hollandaise sauce
- fresh mayonnaise
With these tips and safe cooking procedures in mind, you can help prevent a bout of food poisoning this holiday season. For even more information on how to safely handle potentially hazardous foods, such as proper procedures for purchasing, storing, thawing, prepping, cooking and serving high-risk foods, use the CIFS Guide to Potentially Hazardous Foods.