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Keep food safe at holiday gatherings

URBANA, IL -- The holidays mean a time to enjoy celebrations and all sorts of delicious food that comes with this time of year. In all the excitement and business of cooking, eating, and sharing time with friends and family, Caitlin Huth, a University of Illinois Extension educator and registered dietitian has five steps to help prevent food-related illnesses this season.

Wash hands.  Huth says, “Start here. This is your number one way to reduce your risk of getting sick from food.” With soap and water, rub your palms together, between the fingers, under nails, on the backs of hands, and all around for 20 seconds before rinsing off the soap and germs.

Thaw safely.  From saved frozen cookie dough to whole turkeys and hams, no frozen foods should be thawed on your counters at room temperature. “The safest way to thaw is in the refrigerator,” Huth says. However, you can also start thawing foods in the microwave, but they need to be cooked the rest of the way after that. “Some foods, such as small steaks,” Huth notes, “can be cooked from frozen, but not something as large as a frozen turkey.”

Begin the countdown. Some holiday gathering hosts may leave appetizers, dips, cheese plates, and other foods on a table, counter, or buffet line for anyone to eat. It may be the same for the main course – ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, pie, etc.  Because many of these foods need refrigeration for safety, Huth explains that these foods can be at room temperature for up to 2 hours, and then they need to be put back into the fridge or tossed out. “Bacteria and other organisms are growing while you eat, talk, and spend time together.”

Cool those leftovers. Any leftover foods need to go into cold storage after 2 hours of being at room temperature, or tossed out. Huth adds that foods that remain really hot need to be cooled quickly. Divide hot foods, like sweet potato casserole, into small containers and put into your refrigerator immediately after you are done eating. “Remember, your fridge needs space between foods so cold air can move around. Do not pile containers of hot foods on top of each other or pack your fridge full,” she says.

Use up leftovers.  There are two points here, Huth notes. First, use all leftover foods within 3 to 4 days, and then toss them out or freeze them for longer storage. Second, reheat all leftovers to 165 degrees F. “If you do not have a food thermometer, consider investing in one. Otherwise, look for soups and liquids to be boiling and for casseroles and other dishes to be very hot, not just warm,” Huth says.

“Food safety is important all times of the year, so keep your awareness of these tips and others from Eat and stay well this season,” Huth adds.