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Holiday food safety strategies

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D., former Nutrition Sciences Specialist, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri Extension


During the holiday season many people work overtime in the kitchen. Schedules get even more hectic, family and friends gather, and many people are in and out of the kitchen trying to lend a hand. It's no wonder food safety practices are likely to fall by the wayside when a crowd gathers. But many of our holiday guests are at greater risk for foodborne illness, namely the elderly, children, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system or chronic illness, such as heart disease, diabetes and HIV. No one wants to spoil a holiday celebration with foodborne illness. Keep your family and friends safe with the following food safety strategies:


  1. Check your refrigerator temperature. Use a thermometer to ensure your refrigerator holds foods safely — between 36 and 40 degrees F. Warmer temperatures allow harmful bacteria to thrive and foods to spoil. If you’ll be cooking for a crowd and are short on refrigerator space, fill a cooler or two with ice to handle extra items.
  2. Thaw frozen meat and poultry safely in your refrigerator or under cold water in the sink. If you’re really pressed for time, microwave thawing is fastest, but make sure you finish cooking immediately after thawing. Defrosting any perishable food on the counter is dangerous because bacteria can thrive in the outer portions of the food before the inside thaws.
  3. Wash hands with warm soapy water before and after handling food, as well as after using the toilet, diapering children, blowing your nose, playing with pets, etc.
  4. Prevent cross-contamination. Keep raw meat and poultry and their drippings separate from other foods. Wash counters, cutting boards and knives before, during and after food preparation. Use paper towels to wipe up meat and poultry drippings, as opposed to dish rags and sponges which can soak up and spread bacteria throughout your kitchen.
  5. Roast your holiday turkey in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees F. Avoid short-cut cooking methods that call for cooking the bird overnight.
  6. Use a meat thermometer to ensure safety and quality. Your turkey is cooked safely when the thermometer inserted into the inner thigh, but not touching the bone or the breast, reads 165 degrees F and turkey juices run clear. Cooking dressing in a separate casserole dish is safest, but if you prefer to stuff your holiday bird, fill the cavity loosely and make sure the center of the stuffing reaches 165 degrees F.
  7. Keep cold foods cold (below 40 degrees F) and hot foods hot (above 140 degrees). Use hot plates, chafing dishes and crock pots to keep hot holiday buffet foods at a safe temperature. Keep cold foods chilled by nesting dishes in bowls of ice. Serve small quantities of perishable foods such as meat, cheese and dips, and refill as needed.
  8. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours of serving. Remove turkey from the carcass and refrigerate in small, shallow, covered containers that protect quality and allow for rapid cooling.
  9. Consume leftovers within a few days. Use your freezer for longer storage. Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees F or until hot and steaming. Bring leftover gravy to a rolling boil (165 degrees F) before serving.
  10. Clean up with a sanitizing solution of one teaspoon bleach added to one quart of water. Spray on washed counter tops, kitchen tables and refrigerator door handles, which are the dirtiest spot in a busy kitchen.


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Last update: Friday, December 21, 2012