Food Safety Tips for a Healthy Holiday Season

The holidays are just around the corner and whether you intend to cook for your friends and family, bring foods to a holiday party, or donate foods to meal programs or food banks, be sure to protect food from germs that cause foodborne illness. In the U.S., millions of people get sick each year, and thousands die, from food that has not been properly handled, cooked, or stored.

At increased risk are young children and older people, as well as people with weakened immune systems from chemotherapy or other drugs or medical conditions.

Food safety for the holidays goes beyond the proper preparation and cooking of turkey. Other foods that you prepare—whether they are to be enjoyed at home, transported to a friend or relative's house, or donated—must be handled with equal care to minimize the risk of foodborne illness.

The majority of foodborne illness stems from inadequate hand washing, cross-contamination, and improper cooking, heating and cooling. Follow these tips for safe and healthy holiday meals:

Wash your hands:

  • Wash your hands for about 20 seconds with warm water and soap to get rid of the germs on your hands that can get into food and make people sick.
  • Wash your hands after going to the bathroom, after touching raw meat, fish or poultry, and after taking out the garbage, sneezing, or coughing.

Keep foods safe from cross contamination:

  • Avoid cross-contamination, which occurs when germs from raw foods get onto foods that will not be cooked or fully reheat to 165º F before eating.
  • Put raw poultry, meat and fish in the "meat" drawer of the refrigerator, or put them on the bottom shelf in the refrigerator so the juices don't drip on foods that won't be cooked.
  • Do not reuse a container for raw meats until it has been washed, rinsed and sanitized.
  • Use a hard cutting surface with no splits or holes in it.
  • Wash, rinse and sanitize the cutting surface and utensils after cutting raw poultry, meat, and fish, as well as melons. Make a sanitizer with 1 teaspoon of household bleach for each gallon of cool water.

Heat foods to their proper temperature:

  • In order to kill all bacteria, cook turkey and other poultry to at least 165º F, ground beef and ground pork to 155º F, and fish, shellfish, lamb, other pork and other beef to 145º F.
  • Cold foods should be kept cold (lower than 41º F), and hot foods should be kept hot (above 140º F). Many turkey recipes call for cooking turkey to temperatures above 165º F,  for best texture and taste.

Cool and reheat foods properly:

  • Cool food properly by placing it in uncovered shallow pans in the refrigerator.
  • If you are taking prepared food to share with others, be certain that you keep it hot (above 140º F) or cold (41º F or below) during the trip and until it is served.
  • Do not cover hot food until it has cooled in a refrigerator to 41º F or below.
  • Reheating of food needs to be done as quickly as possible (within 1 hour) to a temperature of 165º F.
  • If food has been sitting at room temperature for no more than 2 hours, refrigerate it or reheat it. If food has been sitting out for longer than 2 hours, throw it out.
  • Take care with leftovers. Be sure the food has been cooled properly, then kept cold on the journey home.
  • Scrub the exterior of melons before cutting them, and then keep them cold at 41º F or below.
  • Keep "starchy foods" like cooked beans (legumes), rice, potatoes and pasta at 140º F or above, or cold at 41º F or below. Be sure to refrigerate within 2 hours after the meal.
  • Keep tofu and other plant protein foods hot (140º F or above) or cold (41º F or below).
  • Sprouts must be kept at 41º F or below until used.

Donated foods:

Meal programs and food banks see a large amount of food donated around holidays, and this holiday season will be no exception. Thousands of hungry people in King County rely on emergency food programs to provide what may be the only nourishing meal of their day. Public Health encourages food donations and recommends following these guidelines for donating food:

  • Keep cold foods at 41º or less and hot foods at 140º or above. Use an accurate thermometer.
  • Leftover foods and foods precooked for later use should be cooled quickly in layers no more than two inches deep.
  • For maximum safety donated foods should be prepared in a commercial kitchen.
  • Event foods that were on a buffet table may not be donated.

For additional information on food safety, please visit www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/ehs/foodsafety.aspx