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Holiday Food Safety

family enjoying holiday meal
November 13, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

It’s almost here. Holiday season.

For most of us, holiday season is also eating season. Not only do we have numerous family meals—often better described as feasts—but our bodies naturally want to stock up on fat supplies as the days grow shorter and colder.

Of course, while food is often the centerpiece of family gatherings, too often too little thought is put into keeping everyone safe with all that food around.

So today, I want to bring you five things you should do this holiday season to keep everyone safe in the kitchen and around the dinner table. With children running about, meals to be planned, gifts to be bought, last minute grocery trips to be made, and that one crazy uncle you’ve got to keep entertained, it’s very easy for everyday safety to slip your mind.

So I’d encourage you to print up this list and put in somewhere everyone can see it. The fridge is a perfect spot.

1. Keep Your Kitchen Safe

Young ones might be helping out with meals. Or simply running around underfoot in a particularly spirited game of tag.

Some are too young to know any better. And even adults who do know better can forget some of the basics when twenty things are happening at once. So appoint a Safety Czar for the kitchen. And give them this checklist.

  • Keep all pot and pan handles pointed to the outside of the stove. They shouldn’t hang out in open space where someone passing by can bump them (and spill boiling sauce everywhere). Likewise, they shouldn’t point inward, where a neighboring burner can heat them up—or, in some cases, melt them, releasing toxic fumes.
  • Keep all knives away from edges. You don’t want a knife to go flying and land in a foot, or worse.
  • Always give knives to someone handle first, with the sharp edge facing downward.
  • If there’s heat involved, always use hot pads and oven mitts. There’s a delay between when we touch a too-hot item, and we feel it. You don’t want to realize the casserole is too hot to hold while you’re transferring it from the oven to the counter.
  • Every time you’re using heat, set a timer. You might know exactly when to remove a dish from the oven. Maybe you’re waiting for your beloved Detroit Lions to finally get a touchdown (which, this year, means you’ll be waiting an awful long time). But it’s too easy for an inner timer to be forgotten when you’re running around, or if you leave the room. An alarm going off is impossible to ignore.

2. Keep Raw Meats Separate From Everything Else.

This is second nature for most of us, but if a child is helping out, they might not know that chicken can carry salmonella. Make sure that your raw meats and your raw veggies each have their own cutting board.

And as soon as you’ve finished using that cutting board, wash it. Or at least put it in the sink. You don’t want someone else to come along and use it, unaware that it already had raw turkey sitting there. Get that cutting board away from cooking space as soon as it’s out of use.

3. Thoroughly Wash All Greens And Vegetables.

Every few years, a few people die from e. coli poisoning from a vegetable. We spend so much time worrying about meats, we often forget that vegetables can carry harmful bacteria as well.

I recommend using a grapefruit seed extract or a vegetable wash, as they both will neutralize any bad actors. If you’re making a salad or using vegetables that won’t be cooked, this is especially important.

4. Eat To 80% Full.

This Thanksgiving, you won’t get sleepy because of tryptophan in the turkey. Chicken and pork, for instance, have just as much tryptophan in them.

No—you’ll get sleepy because of post-prandial glucose levels.

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Basically, when we overeat—especially carb-heavy meals, as tends to happen during holiday feasts—our blood sugar levels go through the roof. And when they ultimately come crashing back down, we get what’s commonly called a food coma.

In extreme cases, it can actually lead to a real coma. And, considering that fully ⅓ of all Americans are pre-diabetic, those extreme cases can be more common than you’d expect.

Don’t tell yourself this is just once a year, so you can get away with overeating. (Especially if you’ll tell yourself the same thing during Christmas, and then New Year’s, and you already used that excuse for Halloween.)

Your health is worth much more than eating until you feel sick…so be mindful of your portions and stop eating when you’re about 80% full.

Leftovers are better than second (or third) servings anyway.

5. Store Food Properly.

I know some families turn Thanksgiving into an all-day affair, with a large meal earlier in the day that is then picked at until the last football whistle blows.

That in and of itself isn’t a problem. Indeed, spreading a large meal out over a longer period of time can actually help control your blood sugar, and be a healthier choice.

However, lots of people just leave a buffet of food out for an extended period of time. And that’s risky behavior.

After a few hours, dangerous critters like e. coli and salmonella can start to grow again. For some food-borne illnesses, heating food only kills “adult” bacteria, while nascent bacteria are still sitting there, just waiting for food to become lukewarm and, once again, welcoming.

Those nascent bacteria won’t hurt you if you eat them before they activate—our stomach acids make quick work of them. But if they mature before you ingest them, they will release toxins into your food.

And those toxins can make you very ill.

If you will be eating all day, store the food in the fridge until you’re ready to have another plate. Then, heat it back up.

Your snack will taste better, and you’ll be much safer for it.

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