No matter which holidays you celebrate, eating together with family can be a big part of the fun. We often cook for family members, including small children and the elderly, who are at increased risk for food-borne illness (also known as food poisoning).
Approximately half of all cases of food-borne illness in the United States occur in children under 15, with children under 5 being especially at high risk. If you’ll be cooking for a crowd this season, the Florida Poison Information Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine has some tips and tools to keep holiday meals safe for everyone.
Food-borne illness most commonly happens when bacteria grows quickly in food that’s been improperly stored or prepared. Some of the “bad bugs” that make people sick include Salmonella, E. Coli, Campylobacter and Listeria. Common symptoms of serious food poisoning are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever — although each organism has patterns of symptoms that can help doctors figure out which illness has been contracted.
Most cases of food poisoning come from home-cooked food, often associated with the preparation of meals for a large group.
One of the challenges of cooking for a group is keeping large quantities of food cold enough to prevent spoilage. If you overfill the refrigerator, food can block the air circulation and the temperature can rise dangerously. The food safety danger zone is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. You want to move food quickly through this zone, getting food hot enough to kill bacteria and then chilling leftovers within two hours of being served. This is especially true in steamy South Florida if holiday meals are served outdoors.
Key Steps to Keep Food Safe
▪ Clean: Start with a clean scene. Clean counters, cutting boards and food prep tools with hot, soapy water. Use paper towels or clean kitchen towels. Do not use the same towel (or sponge) over and over — that spreads germs. If you want to be extra cautious, wipe down clean counters with a solution of one tablespoon of bleach in one gallon of water. Let it stand a few minutes and rinse with plain water. You’re now ready to begin cooking safely.
▪ Separate: Prepare your salads, veggies and uncooked dishes away from raw meats and poultry. Similarly, don’t use the same cutting boards or knives, to reduce your risk of cross-contamination.
▪ Cook: Bring your meats, casseroles and stuffing to the right temperature. A whole turkey or chicken should come up to 165 degrees, egg dishes and ground beef should reach 160 degrees and fish and beef or pork roasts should be cooked to 145 degrees. Use a digital instant-read thermometer to correctly read temperatures. They are inexpensive and tell you if food is safe to eat.
▪ Chill: Use a cooler with ice to store ingredients if your fridge is too small. Check the temperature of your fridge and be sure it’s keeping foods below 40 degrees. Leftovers are tasty, but only when they are chilled quickly, and even then they only keep for about four days maximum.
Other Food Poisoning Culprits
Leftovers are a common culprit in post-holiday food-related illness. Put warm leftovers in small containers so they cool faster, and send them home with guests to minimize waste.
Many people enjoy eggnog with raw egg and the occasional spoonful of cookie dough. This is a risky practice, especially for young children. No ’nog for the kids if it contains raw egg or alcohol. If cookie dough at your house never makes it to the oven, simply make the dough without eggs. It’s still delicious and is much safer to eat uncooked.
If you’re a healthy adult, you may have never experienced food poisoning, even if you haven’t paid much attention to food safety. But as a parent, or if you cook for older adults or anyone with diabetes, it’s worth making the extra effort to keep everybody safe. Better food safety practices can protect your loved ones all year, not just during the holidays.
For more safety tips, visit HolidayFoodSafety.org, a service of the Partnership for Food Safety Education. If you think you’ve contracted food poisoning or have questions about any type of poisoning, call 1-800-222-1222 for immediate assistance from the Poison Control Center, which is free, confidential and open 24/7 — even on holidays.
Wendy Stephan is the Health Education Coordinator and Richard Weisman, Pharma.D., is the Director of the Florida Poison Control Center – Miami, located at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.