Living Well: Don’t let holiday feasts make you sick |

Living Well: Don’t let holiday feasts make you sick

Proper food handling is essential to a healthy holiday season

Lauren Glendenning / Brought to you by Memorial Regional Health
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Roasted Turkey With Meat Thermometer
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  Hand-washing tips Wash your hands with soap and hot water during these key times when you are likely to get and spread germs:
  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
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  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
Source: CDC

We often think about calories and nutrition when talking about staying healthy around the holidays, but what about proper food safety?

The improper handling of poultry, including undercooking it, is one of the most common problems that can lead to foodborne illness after a holiday meal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Madysen Jourgensen, registered dietitian at Memorial Regional Health, said a little planning can go a long way in terms of preventing foodborne illness this holiday season. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you cook — and eat — holiday feasts.

Handling a turkey

If your turkey is frozen, it’s critical that you thaw it safely in one of three ways, according to the CDC: 

  • In the refrigerator in a container
  • In a leak-proof plastic bag in a sink filled with cold water (change the water every 30 minutes)
  • In the microwave, following the manufacturer’s instructions
Cooking a turkey is a holiday tradition, but it’s important to know how to safely handle the turkey from start to finish in order to prevent foodborne illness.
Man Taking Roast Turkey Out Of The Oven

“You should never leave your turkey out on the countertop to thaw,” Jourgensen said. “Leaving your turkey out on the countertop allows bacteria to grow rapidly and can really increase risk of foodborne illness.”

The turkey is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. (A food thermometer is a very handy tool to keep close on Thanksgiving, Jourgensen said.)

Stuffing a turkey

It’s perfectly safe to stuff a turkey, if you do it right. Jourgensen said any meats that the stuffing recipe calls for should be cooked thoroughly prior to stuffing the turkey. The stuffing should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees to ensure food safety. 

Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165 degrees, which could cause food poisoning, according to the CDC. 

The internal temperature must reach 165 degrees before a turkey is safe to eat. The same temperature also applies to the stuffing.
Roasted Turkey With Meat Thermometer

“Cooking stuffing separately is most definitely a more food-safe method of preparing stuffing for your Thanksgiving meal,” Jourgensen said.

If cooking the stuffing inside the turkey, the CDC recommends waiting 20 minutes after taking the bird out of the oven before removing the stuffing, allowing it to cook a little more. 

Take care of leftovers

While it’s common to graze on holiday food throughout a party or after a meal, food should never be left out for longer than two hours. 

“Foodborne illness can be of concern if food has been sitting out too long in what we call ‘the temperature danger zone,’” Jourgensen said. “This temperature danger zone (40 to 140 degrees) is a range in which bacteria on foods can multiply rapidly and be a source of foodborne illness.”

Clostridium perfringens — the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning — grows in cooked foods left at room temperature. The major symptoms of this bacteria are vomiting and abdominal cramps within six to 24 hours after eating, according to the CDC. 

Outbreaks occur most often in November and December, and are often linked to foods commonly served during the holidays, such as turkey and roast beef.

“Refrigerate leftovers at 40 degrees or colder as soon as possible and within two hours of preparation to prevent food poisoning,” according to the CDC. “Slice or divide big cuts of meat, such as a roast turkey, into small quantities for refrigeration so they will cool quickly. Reheat all leftovers to at least 165 degrees before serving.”

Jourgensen said all leftovers should be eaten within four days of when they were originally prepared. If you don’t think you can consume all of the leftovers in that four-day period, you can always freeze some of the foods to eat later. 

Wash your hands

Hand hygiene is one of the most important safety tips to focus on during holiday meal preparations, Jourgensen said. 

Wash your hands before you begin your holiday cooking, and make sure you continue to wash your hands throughout the day as you handle various foods (see factbox).
housewife washing hands in kitchen

“It is so important to wash your hands throughout the cooking process to avoid spreading bacteria,” she said. “We should be washing our hands before we start cooking, throughout the cooking process (e.g. if handling raw chicken, you must wash your hands before handling anything else), and we should be washing them before we eat.”

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