For many of us, food is one way we celebrate holidays. Because we’re preparing so many different foods – and so much of it – for different amounts of time at various temperatures, it can be challenging to follow smart food safety practices.

Here, Technical Manager of UL Everclean Mike Haller, a registered environmental health specialist, offers six steps to help ensure that your holiday gatherings don’t run afoul.

1. Plan ahead.

“A holiday party almost always revolves around huge amounts of food,” Haller said. “Planning, even when and how you do your grocery shopping, is important. Pick up nonperishable foods first. Then load your cart with the perishables last, because you’ll have to wait in line and drive home. That way you can keep perishables cold for as long as possible.”

Buy a whole turkey or other especially large cuts of meat ahead of time, as it will take time to thaw.

2. Clean your hands often.

“Wash your hands before handling food, then if you handle any raw food product, wash again,” Haller said. “Wash your hands after you use the bathroom, pet the cat or dog, take out the garbage, sneeze or cough; basically, any time you think you’ve contaminated your hands.”

Sanitizers are good, but should not replace proper hand washing with soap and water, Haller said, which is the golden standard for food safety.

3. Prevent cross contamination from raw meat.

Raw meat easily can cross contaminate other surfaces through many different methods.

One way is through the thawing of a turkey or other large cut of meat, which can fill the sink, causing bacteria droplets to splash about. Haller advised people to thaw meat in the fridge, which can take several days for whole turkeys or hams. If you do thaw it in the sink, know that this requires care, Haller said. The water needs to be changed every 30 minutes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), or, better yet, use running water.

Another important part of preventing cross contamination is to frequently wash countertops and other kitchen surfaces. Consider using a little bit of bleach diluted in water, Haller said.

“Use one small capful of bleach per gallon of water,” Haller advised.

Be sure to use different cutting board for each raw meat in order to prevent cross contamination. Never use a cutting board that had raw meat on it for another food, the CDC advised, until it has been thoroughly cleaned with hot soapy water, rinsed, then sanitized with a bleach solution.

Haller said that one of the biggest holiday cooking safety culprits is the sponge, which can spread contamination.

“Between uses, microwave the sponge for one minute to kill any bacteria,” Haller said. “It’s hot when it comes out, so be careful.”

4. Cook foods to the right temperature.

Use your food thermometer to determine the internal temperature.

“Do not guess,” Haller said. “You can invest in a good food thermometer for less than $20. It should have a range from 0 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit, which will give you an accurate reading for cold and hot foods.”

Internal temperatures should be:

  • 165 degrees Fahrenheit for poultry products and stuffing products
  • 145 degrees Fahrenheit for a whole ham, steaks or eggs
  • 155 degrees Fahrenheit for ground meats

About that cookie dough and eggnog: Don’t eat raw dough or anything with raw egg products because of the possibility of Salmonella poisoning. Look for eggnog that has been pasteurized.

“Even though I have problems with the cookie dough rule myself, I’ve learned to use pasteurized eggs in the dough that I’m going to eat,” Haller said. “Or, you can eat the shelf stable cookie dough that has been pasteurized.”

He added: “Be careful if you’re making your own eggnog. Don’t serve what you make to the elderly, kids or immunocompromised people.”

Also don’t serve other foods with uncooked eggs, such as tiramisu, hollandaise sauce and Caesar dressing, to those vulnerable populations.

5. Chill food properly.

Food is only supposed to sit out for two hours after cooking, including the time spent sitting down to eat. This includes most baked/cooked desserts, which should be kept in the fridge unless they’re cooling after baking or you’re serving them.

“When preparing leftovers, slice it into smaller portions,” Haller said. “This will allow it to cool.”More tips on keeping leftovers safe and delicious can be found here.

More tips on keeping leftovers safe and delicious can be found here.

6. Heat leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

A major contributing factor in food poisoning is improperly heated leftovers, Haller said.

“Regardless of what the food is, it needs to be rapidly reheated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said. “Use your food thermometer to check. Don’t guess.”

These tips will help keep your food safe this holiday season, even if you’re cooking for crowds. Remember, it’s all in preparing ahead of time. Plan how to shop efficiently, know how long to cook various foods and how to balance preparation and cooking, and then follow good food safety hygiene practices.

Happy holidays!