Food Safety Tips for the Holidays

Food businesses are especially busy during the holidays. Make sure safety is still the top priority in your establishment this season.
December 7, 2021

Food businesses are well positioned to turn a profit from the numerous social and corporate gatherings that happen from November through to the new year. Big parties, small get-togethers and other holiday celebrations are all about festive foods and drinks. While prepping staff and the premises for the busiest time of the year, prioritizing food safety should be at the top of your list — the last thing your business needs is a food-borne illness outbreak!

Here are some safety tips to keep in mind as you enter the holidays.

Only order what you need

There’s a good chance that this time of year you’re ordering and preparing large quantities of food to serve large numbers of people, depending on the type of establishment and services you offer. That means you’ll need to pay close attention to ingredient quantities and only order what you need. This is one of the best ways to prevent food spoilage and to avoid serving unsafe food to customers.

During the holidays as always, it’s important to do your best to reduce food waste. If you have excess food for any reason after a function, for example, you may want to donate those items to food banks. This is one way to prevent food spoilage while also helping your community. Charities may have specific needs and guidelines around what they accept as far as donations, so ask them before deciding to donate.

Before the rush, set up the kitchen for safety

Things may get hectic during the holiday rush, and staff could be working different shifts than usual or taking vacations, so make sure your kitchen is set up for safety — and success. This involves simple steps such as:

  • Separating foods to reduce risk of cross-contamination. Keep raw foods separate from cooked. Ensure juices from meat, poultry and seafood do not drip onto other foods.
  • Ensuring your kitchen uses the FIFO — first in, first out — system, so that foods acquired or prepared earlier are served and consumed first.
  • Having fully equipped hand washing stations available, with paper towels, liquid soap dispensers and hand dryers.

Be ready for the holiday rush before it hits!

Ensure correct hand washing procedures are followed

In busy times, it’s easy to neglect the basics. Remember, though, that hand washing for at least 20 seconds with warm water and liquid soap is crucial for everyone working in a food business. Staff must wash hands:

  • before, during and after preparing food
  • after touching trash
  • after using the toilet
  • after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • after smoking

Post reminders in prominent locations about when and how to wash hands, and ensure these rules are followed no matter how busy the operation gets!

Thaw the turkey thoroughly

If you’ll be serving freshly roasted turkey as part of a holiday menu, you need to prepare in advance to make sure it’s done safely. Thaw the turkey in the refrigerator instead of on the counter, as harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly in the meat when left out. Keep in mind that this can take a while to thaw — roughly 24 hours for every 5 lbs of turkey! Plan ahead to remove the temptation to thaw the turkey at room temperature.

Make sure food is cooked well

Ensure high-risk foods are handled carefully and for cooked items, make sure they’re cooked thoroughly to kill any dangerous microorganisms that could be present when they’re raw or undercooked. Meat, poultry, seafood and eggs need to be cooked well. As a general rule, all food must be cooked to 74°C (165°F), or 82°C (180°F) in Manitoba. To be sure, use a clean, calibrated thermometer to check the internal temperature of these foods and ensure they have reached their safe food cooking temperature.

Pay attention to temperature

Frozen food must be frozen at -18°C (0°F) or below and must be thawed completely before cooking (except those that are designed to be cooked from frozen).

Hot foods must be kept hot after thorough cooking and maintain a temperature of 60°C (140°F) or above.

Cold food should be maintained at 0°C to 4°C (32°F to 40°F), and should be kept chilled or refrigerated until serving time. If you’re putting together serving platters intended to be left out for a period of time, try using iced trays and cold packs to keep the food at safe eating temperatures.

If you have a large number of appetizers on a tray that need to be stored in the refrigerator, place them in smaller, sealed containers, freeze what you can, and label each container with the date and time it was stored.

Be conscious that festive foods could be riskier

Holiday dishes and desserts often contain common allergens such as nuts, eggs or shellfish.

Some holiday foods such as eggnog, tiramisu or hollandaise sauce could contain raw eggs — make sure these eggs are pasteurized, and that customers are aware of precisely what is contained in which dishes. Ensure staff know which ingredients are in which dishes, so that they can confidently inform a customer who may ask. Add notes on the menu letting customers know the potential allergens or risks associated with certain dishes.

Shellfish can be particularly risky, so be sure to buy, store and prepare seafood properly. Ensure you only purchase from reputable suppliers and that it’s refrigerated correctly. When cooking shellfish, an internal temperature of 74°C (165°F) needs to be reached before it’s considered safe to eat. If you intend to serve raw fish, use sushi-grade fish, as this will have been frozen according to specific standards aimed at killing bacteria.

High-risk groups of people — the very young, sick, elderly or pregnant — should always be taken into special consideration. For example, some popular holiday foods like soft cheeses and raw oysters can be potentially harmful to pregnant women. Be aware of these special risks.

Never assess food safety by looks alone

Anything that looks or smells off should definitely be thrown away. Even if a food doesn’t look, taste or smell spoiled, it can still be unsafe. Food-borne illnesses are caused by pathogenic bacteria, which can be present in raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables. Store these foods properly to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. And when in doubt, throw it out!

Safeguard leftovers

If you’re sending customers home with leftovers after a holiday soiree, make sure they know how to keep them safe. Always seal food properly in clean, airtight containers. Inform customers about proper reheating practices: thoroughly reheat leftovers to make sure bacteria growth isn’t encouraged after reheating, and if reheating in a microwave, take steps to make sure the food is reheated evenly. Cold spots can easily breed harmful bacteria and make them sick.

Make sure customers know that food must be thrown away after it has spent 2 hours in the Temperature Danger Zone of between 4°C and 60°C (5°C and 60°C in Manitoba). Basically, leftover food should be stored properly right away to be safe and help prevent a bout of food poisoning.

The Canadian Institute of Food Safety (CIFS) offers a comprehensive Food Handler Certification Course that can equip all Food Handlers at your establishment with the skills and knowledge they need to ensure food is safe during the holidays, and all year round. Contact CIFS for more information.