A man serving himself holiday food like turkey and baked goods.

How to keep your food clean and safe to eat

Basics and tips for food safety during for holiday gatherings
December 18, 2018

The holiday season means time for gathering with family and friends, often with a cornucopia of food. However, this abundance comes with an increase in the risk for foodborne illness, and it can occur at any time, not just the holidays.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly one in six Americans get sick, 128,000 get hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne illness. Typical symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and flu-like symptoms, which can start anywhere from hours to days after contaminated food or drinks are consumed.

“One of the easiest ways to avoid an accidental foodborne illness is to remember to keep refrigerated foods cold and hot foods hot,” said Matt Hoffman, DNP, APRN, FNP-C, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing. “There’s a greater risk for foodborne illness among pregnant women, older adults or anyone with a compromised immune system, so these individuals should take extra care to ensure the freshness of the food they eat.”

To combat foodborne illness, Hoffman offers the following tips:


  • Purchase frozen stuffed items, then cook frozen. Do not buy fresh stuffed turkeys.
  • Wash hands before and during food preparation, and clean hands when handling raw foods and before handling other foods.
  • Use separate cutting boards for preparing raw meats. Utensils and plates should be cleaned if in contact with raw meat juices to prevent cross contamination.
  • Wash all produce thoroughly.
  • Cook meats at internal temperatures of 165°F for poultry; 160°F for pork, roasts and chops; and 145°F for whole cuts of beef, veal and lamb. Use a reliable cooking thermometer to check different parts of the meat to ensure it is heated throughout.
  • Warm foods left out in a slow cooker or chafing dish should be kept at a temperature above 140°F. Cold foods need to stay at 40°F or below.
  • Cool leftovers properly before refrigerating, and use shallow containers to separate foods. Reheat leftovers to 165°F.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftover chicken within two hours of cooking, or within one hour if the temperature outside is higher than 90°F.


  • Don’t cook turkey slowly at low temperatures. Cook around 325°F.
  • Don’t thaw meats at room temperature. Always place thawing meats in the refrigerator.

Finally, do be mindful when eating out as well. “Contact your local health department if you believe you, or someone you know, became ill from eating at a public restaurant,” Hoffman said. “This helps with identifying potential foodborne disease outbreaks.”

While most people with a foodborne illness get better without medical treatment, people with severe or long-lasting symptoms like high fevers, bloody stools or diarrhea that lasts more than three days should see their health care provider. Be sure to drink plenty of water and call your health care provider if you have any questions.

— Mary Leigh Meyer

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