Test your food safety smarts before the holidays

Generous buffets, treasured covered dishes, golden turkeys stuffed with dressing. Each is a staple of holiday entertaining, and each brings its own challenges when it comes to safely feeding ourselves and others.

That’s why when this festive winter season rolls around we’re encouraged to pay special attention to food safety.

“We would love for people to be careful with their food all year-round, not just during the holidays,” said Meghan Lassiter, family and consumer sciences agent for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension serving Brunswick County. “But there is definitely something about the holiday season that gets people thinking about being more safe and being more careful.”

That is probably because we’re eating away from home more, at restaurants, parties and the houses of family and friends, or we’re playing host ourselves, she said. “We don’t want to be the one who gets people sick,” Lassiter said, adding that we can eliminate most of the risk for food-borne illness by following simple rules.

Think you know just what to do to keep your family and friends safe? Let’s find out! Take the quick quiz below, and if you get stymied, we’ve got all of the facts, so you can channel your inner food safety expert as you prepare delicious meals in the weeks to come.

Question 1 of 9

Is it safe to store perishable foods however you like as long as they are in the refrigerator and freezer?

Not quite.

First, clean your refrigerator and freezer and make sure there is enough room for storing foods before you go shopping. Then, store fruits and vegetables separately from meats or seafood and avoid crowding, leaving space for air to circulate. If storing or thawing meats or fish in the refrigerator, place them inside another container to catch any juices and store them on a lowest shelf to avoid cross contamination.

An inexpensive appliance thermometer can help ensure your refrigerator is at a safe 32 to 40 degrees and your freezer is at 0 degrees. Interior shelves maintain more consistent temperatures. If possible, reserve refrigerator shelf doors for condiments, butter and hard cheeses, and freezer doors for nuts, whole grains, butter or bread/rolls.

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Question 2 of 9

We all know we should wash our hands with soap and running water, but for at least how long?

Not quite.

Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Rinse them under running water and dry them thoroughly. Do this before touching food, containers or utensils. (In a pinch, if soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, rubbing it in for at least 20 seconds.)

Also, remember to wash surfaces, containers and utensils with hot soapy water or, if possible, use the dishwasher, between each food preparation. If you want to make your own sanitizer, add 1 tablespoon bleach in a gallon of water and use that solution to clean cutting boards and countertops.

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Question 3 of 9

What’s the best way to thaw frozen foods, including a turkey?

Not quite.

Never thaw food on the counter. The safest way to thaw frozen foods is in their original packaging in the refrigerator.

If the item, such as a turkey, contains juices, place it inside a rimmed baking sheet or bowl to catch any released liquid. Remember, you’ll need about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds, so a 16-pound, frozen turkey, for example, will need at least 4 days to thaw. (The only time you should not thaw food in its original packaging is vacuum-packed fish, because of the potential of botulism. It should be moved to a clean container with a cover.)

If you’re in a hurry, other safe ways to thaw food include: Place the food in a zip-top bag or airtight container and submerge it in cold tap water; changing the water every 30 minutes and allowing about 30 minutes per pound. Also, you can safely thaw food in a microwave. Food thawed in water or in the microwave, however, MUST be cooked immediately. If you have to cook your turkey from frozen, you can do that. Check out our Desperation Turkey (From Frozen).

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Question 4 of 9

What is the best indicator that food is cooked or reheated to a safe temperature?

Not quite.

The temperature is the ONLY way to be sure cooked food is safe to eat. Invest in a calibrated digital instant read thermometer. America’s Test Kitchen recommends Thermoworks Thermapen Mark 4 for $99 and the more reasonably priced Thermopop for $29. Both work well. For example, a turkey should be cooked to 165 degrees, with the legs cooked to 175. If the turkey is stuffed, the stuffing also should be at 165 degrees. To test foods, measure it at its thickest spot, avoiding any bone, if present. If testing a stew or other dish with a sauce, stir it before taking its temperature. Reheat sauces, soups and gravies by bringing them to a rolling boil.

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Question 5 of 9

How long can you leave perishable food at room temperature?

Not quite.

Foods that require refrigeration can be left at room temperature for up to 2 hours, 1 hour if the room or space is 90 degrees or hotter. This includes cooked and uncooked foods.

Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees — considered the “danger zone.” The amount can double in as little as 20 minutes.

Some foodborne bacteria produce poisons or toxins that are not destroyed by high cooking temperatures, so if food is left out beyond the recommended times, it should not be reheated and should be discarded. Anything that looks or smells off or suspicious should be thrown out.

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Question 6 of 9

Leftovers are the best part of holiday meals. How long do I have to eat them?

Not quite.

Properly stored leftovers — those that have not been at room temperature for more than 2 hours — should be eaten or frozen within 4 days. This rule doesn’t apply to all foods — some, like cranberry sauce, can be eaten for up to 5 days, while others, like gravies and sauces, will taste best if eaten in 2 days. If you know you have more leftovers than you can finish in a couple of days, food safety experts say go ahead and freeze it rather than wait. It will taste better and that is the safer way to handle leftovers.

Don’t wait. Refrigerate leftovers as soon as you finish your meal. Chill them quickly by placing them in shallow containers and cutting larger foods, like that turkey, into smaller pieces. Wrap them tightly or put them in an airtight container to keep bacteria at bay. If a large quantity of food is piping hot, transfer it to smaller containers and place it over ice to cool it down for 20 minutes to avoid heating up your refrigerator.

When reheating, it is best to reheat only the portion you plan to consume rather than reheating the whole amount. Before serving, reheat casseroles to 165 degrees and bring sauces and gravies to a rolling boil.

Refrigeration slows but does not stop bacterial growth, so there is some risk of snacking on any cold leftovers, especially for infants, the elderly, and those who are pregnant or immunocompromised.

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Question 7 of 9

Which of these foods should not be prepared in advance before cooking?

Not quite.

Never refrigerate uncooked stuffing. This is because it is at a high risk for bacterial growth. If not freezing or cooking, the dry and wet ingredients can be mixed separately and refrigerated, but should not be mixed together until just before cooking. If stuffing a whole bird, spoon the stuffing in loosely, about 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound. It should be moist because heat destroys bacteria more rapidly in a moist environment. The stuffed bird or casserole dish should immediately be placed in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees. When finished baking, use a food thermometer to ensure the stuffing is at least 165 degrees. If the stuffing is baked inside the whole bird, take the poultry out of the oven and let it stand 20 minutes before removing the stuffing. Refrigerate cooked poultry and stuffing within 2 hours.

If freezing cooked stuffing, place in a shallow container and freeze immediately. To use it safely, do not thaw it before cooking. Cook the frozen stuffing until it reaches 165 degrees. Premade store-bought stuffing should also be cooked to 165 degrees.

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Question 8 of 9

How long can I leave my homemade fruit pies on the counter?

Not quite.

The USDA says fruit pies made with sugar are food-safe at room temperatures for up to 2 days because the sugar and acid slow bacterial growth. After that, they can be refrigerated for up to 2 more days. If the house is warm, however, experts recommend storing all the pies in the refrigerator.

Any pies or pastries containing eggs or dairy — even in a topping — must be covered and refrigerated. They should stand at room temperature for only up to 2 hours. This includes pecan, pumpkin and custard pies, according to the USDA. Commercially produced pies, such as pumpkin, are typically made with preservatives to keep them shelf-stable for longer, but, if they contain egg, the USDA advises that leftovers be refrigerated as well.

Use foil, plastic wrap or an overturned bowl to cover pies unless you have a pie keeper. If using a bowl, allow the pie to chill first to avoid condensation.

And remember when baking that you should not eat raw dough or filling containing eggs or flour. Both are raw and can cause illness. If you are not cooking the eggs, such as for meringues, use pasteurized eggs.


In an earlier version of this article, question No. 8 referred to fruit and nut pies. It should have referred to just fruit pies. Nut pies, like pecan, usually include eggs and should be refrigerated.

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Question 9 of 9

What do I need to know before I bring food to a potluck?

Not quite.

Remember the 2-hour rule as you consider both travel time and the time between your arrival and when the food will be eaten. Don’t assume you’ll be able to slip your dish into the refrigerator or oven. Check with the host to find out what’s possible before offering to bring a certain dish. If you are hosting, be sure to share these details with attendees.

It is easier to bring something cold or something that is room temperature than something hot. For short distances, say within 30 minutes, the best way to travel with a hot casserole is to keep it in the pan it was cooked in, double wrap it in foil, then wrap it in tea towels and place it in an insulated box or bag large enough to store it flat so that it won’t spill.

For longer distances, consider making the dish the day before and then refrigerating or freezing it properly. Transport the cold food in a cooler with freezer gels or ice. Reheat it to 165 degrees once you arrive. (If foods are frozen, pack them directly from the freezer into a cooler.) A full cooler maintains its cold temperature better, so pack empty space with ice or frozen gel packs. Open the cooler only when essential.

Keep snacks or drinks in a separate cooler. Be sure to keep cooked foods separate from fresh vegetables or breads.

Upon arrival, put cold foods in the refrigerator or over ice. Place hot foods in a 200-degree oven or in a chafing dish, slow cooker or warming tray capable of holding foods at 140 degrees or warmer.

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