Holiday leftovers: Make sure they’re safe

theGRIO REPORT - Food sitting at room temperature for over two hours creates the perfect environment for food poisoning...

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Good food is a big part of holiday celebrations, a time when your whole family gathers for a mini family reunion. After you feast on the traditional family favorites you carefully prepared, you’ll sit around the table talking, laughing, reminiscing – and absentmindedly nibbling at leftovers. Time will fly by and you will have forgotten how long the food has been lingering on the table.

This common scenario can put your family and friends at risk for foodborne illnesses. Food sitting at room temperature for over two hours creates the perfect environment for food poisoning.

Bacteria thrive in a warm environment and spread fastest at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F.

Joan Salge Blake, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says: “as you eat and visit with family and friends, keep in mind how long the food on the buffet table has been sitting out unrefrigerated. You can’t tell if a food is unsafe by taste, smell or appearance alone.”

Food safety is key to keeping your friends and family safe from food poisoning.

“Some of your guests may be at a higher risk for developing serious illness from food poisoning, including young children, pregnant women and older adults,” cautions Salge Blake.

But, you don’t have to let food poisoning spoil the party. With careful planning you can keep your friends and family safe during and after the holiday celebration. Follow these simple steps for planning, shopping, cooking and wrapping up the holiday feast.

Proper planning. Make sure your kitchen is equipped with what you need for safe food handling, including two cutting boards (one for raw meats and seafood and the other for ready-to-eat foods), a food thermometer, shallow containers for storage, paper towels and soap.

Store foods in the refrigerator at 40°F or below or in the freezer at 0°F or below. Check the temperature of both the refrigerator and freezer with a refrigerator thermometer.

Safe shopping. It’s important to keep food safety in mind as you shop, according to Salge Blake. Whether in the shopping cart, reusable grocery tote or the car trunk, keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from ready-to-eat foods like fruit, vegetables and bread.

Don’t purchase bruised or damaged produce, or canned goods that are dented, leaking, bulging or rusted, as these may become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.

Buy cold foods last and bring foods directly home from the grocery store. Remember to always refrigerate perishable foods, such as raw meat or poultry, within two hours.

Working in the kitchen

“In a holiday kitchen filled with family and friends, all hands may be on deck, but are those hands clean?” Salge Blake asks.

“Make sure everyone washes their hands thoroughly with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling food.”

When baking delicious holiday treats, remember that no one should eat raw cookie dough, brownie or cake batter containing raw eggs.

Wrapping up leftovers

Having leftover turkey, ham and other holiday favorites means you can enjoy additional tasty meals days after your feast. But as good as they may taste – even when refrigerated properly, leftovers should be eaten, frozen or discarded within three to four days.

Throw away all perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs and casseroles, left at room temperature longer than two hours. Refrigerate or freeze other leftovers in shallow, airtight containers and label with an expiration date.

Use cooked leftover turkey, stuffing and gravy within three to four days. Cooked turkey will keep for three to four months in the freezer.

Reheat cooked leftovers thoroughly to 165°F or until hot and steaming. Bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a boil before serving.

When microwaving leftovers, make sure there are no cold spots in food – where bacteria can survive. Cover food, stir and rotate for even cooking.

Get more great tips on food safety during the holidays and all year round with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Keep It Cool: Food Storage Chart or download the free Is My Food Safe? app for Apple and Android devices.

Bon appétit and healthy holidays!

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD is an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Follow Brown-Riggs on twitter @eatingsoulfully.