What would the Christmas holidays be without food, glorious food? After all, there’s no better way to enjoy the sunshine and the company of friends and family than with something delicious to eat and share together.
On the downside, although food poisoning is a danger all year round, the holiday season is particularly high risk. Bacteria that are normally present in all foods can easily multiply and reach unsafe levels when the temperature rises. Preparing and storing large amounts of food at home for the holidays, and eating or cooking outdoors, can present their own challenges aswell.
If great enough care isn’t taken to make sure bacterial levels are kept low, food poisoning and serious illness can be the result.
“That period between Christmas and New Year, we are not only entertaining with friends, it's when we are most likely to have a multi-generational family event,” says Juliana Madden of the Food Safety Information Council.
“So you have everyone from grandparents to pregnant women, young children and everyone in between for a big meal. And it’s hot. Suddenly everyone is in the kitchen, the fridge is being opened all the time, there is not enough room in the fridge, so you risk leaving things out.
Combine all those factors and you have a setting ripe for food poisoning. Especially when you consider you have the most vulnerable groups, the elderly and very young, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems joining you for a meal.”
Being prepared is the key to making sure everyone gets through the holidays without any bouts of sickness.
So without further ado, here are our food safety must haves at Christmas:
1. Good Temperature Control
Take extra care to make sure food is properly refrigerated. When you go shopping, take a cooler bag with you to help safely transport perishable items home. The temperature in the air conditioned cab of your car is going to be cooler than the boot, so bear this mind in mind when loading up the vehicle.
Remember to separate potentially hazardous foods from cooked or ready-to-eat foods. Raw meats should always be kept on the bottom shelf of your fridge to prevent juices from dripping onto other foods.
Frozen food 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 not allowed to drop to room temperature.
Food should be allowed to cool to the point where steam is no longer coming from it before placing in the refrigerator. But don’t leave it out for longer than two hours, and if you’re dealing with food that was cooked or consumed outdoors in hot temperatures, refrigerate it within one hour.
Cold food should be kept chilled or refrigerated until serving time. If you’re putting together serving platters or picnic baskets that you intend to leave out for people’s use for a period of time, try using iced trays and cold packs to keep the food at safe eating temperatures.
If you know – or even suspect – that food may have been left out unrefrigerated for four hours or more, it’s better to throw it away than risk getting sick. When in doubt, chuck it out!
2. Safe Seafood
Make sure it’s coming from a reputable supplier that has refrigerated it properly. Once it’s home, you should store seafood in an airtight container in most cases. Live lobsters should be stored in ventilated containers.
When cooking seafood, an internal temperature of 63° C needs to be reached before it’s considered safe to eat. If you don’t already have one, buying a meat thermometer is a good idea so that you can check internal temperatures.
If preparing dishes such as sushi that involve raw fish, make sure to use sushi grade fish, as this will have been frozen according to strict standards that are designed to kill bacteria.
3. Cleanliness Indoors and Outdoors
The vast majority of us will be dining al fresco this Christmas, so remember that the best and most effective action you can take against bacteria is to observe safe and frequent cleaning practices. If you’re planning on using your barbecue this holiday season, give it a good scrub in advance with soapy water. Clean coolers and picnic receptacles in the same way and between uses.
When handling, preparing, and serving food, always wash your hands frequently to avoid cross-contamination. Wipe down counters and other preparation surfaces thoroughly.
Take extra care when handling high risk foods such as soft cheese, poultry, ham, salads, homemade dips, seafood, and desserts that may contain raw egg (such as tiramisu).
4. Trustworthy Leftovers
Leftovers are arguably the best thing about Christmas! However, food safety standards must be maintained to ensure they’re safe to eat.
Always seal food properly in clean, airtight containers. When reheating leftovers in a microwave, use a cover. Ensure the food is reheated evenly by stirring or rotating food halfway through cooking. Cold spots can easily breed harmful bacteria and make you sick.
Finally, if you are showing any symptoms of illness or have recently been sick, don’t handle food. Leave the food prep and serving to others in your household, and relish the opportunity to put your feet up.
Happy holidays everyone!