7 Ways to Ruin Your Holiday Meal (and How to Save It)


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
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Holiday cooking and entertaining requires precision organization and execution of a plan. Typically, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of planning and preparation, food safety falls to the bottom of the list. Here are some surprising areas you may not want to forget this holiday season to ensure you and your guests are safe from food-borne illness.

  1. Do not Forget the Kitchen Sink - Having a clean kitchen is important when it comes to preventing food-borne illness. Many of us know the simple steps to make sure our counters and cutting boards are germ free but miss one of the biggest offenders, the kitchen sink. During the holidays, this can be a big mistake especially if you forgot to thaw the turkey in the refrigerator before the morning it is to be put it in the oven. It is totally safe and effective to submerge a frozen turkey in cold water and to change the water every 30 minutes over several hours to thaw it slowly immediately before cooking. However, one small step many cooks forget is to clean and sanitize the sink and drain before starting the process. E. Coli lurk in your sink and can grow rapidly and cause cross contamination when you least expect it. To be sure your sink is sanitized and safe for your holiday dinner, sanitize it with a cleaning solution of two teaspoons of bleach to one quart of water. This is not recommended for stainless steel sinks where undiluted white vinegar can be used instead. Use a clean rag to wipe down the sink thoroughly and a toothbrush as needed to clean around the trap area and sink stopper and basket. Rinse well and you are ready to use your sink safely.

  2. Be Sure You Properly Re-heat Before You Re-serve - There is nothing better than holiday leftovers but they can also provide a risk as well. Many people make the mistake of simply "warming up" the leftovers that were sitting out for several hours the day before. If you do not reheat food completely, bacteria that may cause food-borne illness will not be killed and may actually multiply in the warm, moist environment, increasing your risk of pathogens, which can cause severe illness especially to those that may be immune-compromised. Always make sure you reheat food to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F in a stove, oven, or microwave and bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a boil to be sure any potential pathogens have been properly destroyed.

  3. Sometimes It is Good to be Shallow - When it comes to refrigerating and freezing leftovers, it is no time to be deep. Large masses of food can take hours or even days to chill completely and in the process create an ideal environment for bacterial growth. The goal when storing leftovers is to get them cooled to below 40 degrees F as quickly as possible. Using shallow storage containers ensures this will happen as quickly as possible. Zipper-type plastic bags also provide an effective way to cool and store hot leftovers because they create a large, flat surface area that maximizes cold air exposure allowing food to cool quickly. Another tip to cooling leftovers quickly is to place them on a wire refrigerator shelf to allow air to flow across the bottom of the container, which allows the food to cool twice as fast as when the containers sit on a solid shelf. If your refrigerator only contains solid shelves, put a small portable wire rack on one of shelves for leftover storage use.

  4. Remember Frozen is Preferred Over Fresh When Stuffing is Included - Pre-stuffed turkeys from a local deli department are tempting and can provide a real time saving option when it comes to preparing a complete holiday meal with all the fixings. When stuffing is placed in a fresh turkey, there is plenty of time for bacteria ridden juices from the turkey to soak into the stuffing. Because it is difficult to heat the center of the stuffing to a temperature high enough to kill bacteria, there is little guarantee the stuffing of a fresh stuffed turkey is 100% safe. If you purchase a pre-stuffed turkey, make sure it is frozen and contains the USDA or State mark of inspection on the packaging, which indicates it was processed under safe and highly controlled conditions. Frozen stuffed birds should NOT be thawed prior to cooking. Instead, cook from the frozen state following the package directions for safe handling and cooking.

  5. Slow Cooking May be Moist but Not Safe - You may have a Great-Aunt that swears her turkey is super moist because she cooks using a slow cook method. Well, it may be true that her turkey is moist but it also may be full of bacteria as well. Slow cooking in an oven set below 325 degrees F for a long period of time provides the perfect warm and moist environment for bacteria to multiply rapidly and increases the risk of toxins being formed as well. This would also apply to a whole turkey cooked in a large slow cooker. To be sure you have a moist turkey you can try one of these two methods. The traditional way is to baste the bird with melted butter, olive oil or pan juices every 30-40 minutes during cooking. Note that this will increase your cooking time slightly because each time you open the oven, you lose heat, and it takes additional time for the oven to return to the set cooking temperature, which should be higher than 325 degrees F. Another method is to soak a double layer of cheesecloth in melted butter or olive oil and then drape the cheesecloth over the turkey during cooking. This will allow the skin to develop a rich, golden brown color and if a crispy skin is desired, simply remove the cheesecloth during the last 30 minutes of baking. Also, to ensure the meat is juicy, be sure to let the turkey sit 20-30 minutes after removal from the oven before carving so the flesh has time to reabsorb the meat juices.

  6. Storing Pies on the Counter Can Be Safe, But Not Always - When you are hosting guests for a big holiday meal, getting things done a day or two ahead can be a big help and allow you more time to spend with your guests as long as you know how to store them. Fruit pies such as apple or peach can typically sit safely on a counter or shelf as long as they are covered appropriately. Milk and egg based pies such as pumpkin pie, custard pie or cheesecake cannot. Eggs and milk have high protein and moisture content and when pies made with them are left at room temperature for more than several hours, they provide a perfect environment for bacteria to multiply. Whether you make your pies the day before or the morning of your big meal, it is not safe to let them sit out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours if they contain eggs and/or milk. One trick to ensure a safe pie and ease of preparation is to slip the pie in the oven when the turkey comes out so it is ready at the end of the meal when you are without sitting out for an extended period of time.

  7. Be Smart About Microwave Use - Oven space can be limited when there are many holiday dishes that need to be ready at the same time and the microwave can help. Since microwaves can cook unevenly and leave 'cold spots', it is important to be very careful when cooking or reheating foods. Here are several basic tips to help ensure your food is hot and fully cooked and safe from food-borne pathogen risk. Avoid cooking or re-heating large chunks of meat on high power (100%) since it will over cook the outside but only warm the inside, which will not appropriately kill bacteria. If it is possible, cut the meat into small, thin portion sizes for quicker and more even cooking at high power. If cooking the larger portion size is necessary, cook on medium power (50%) for a longer period. This will allow the heat to reach the center of the meat adequately without over cooking the outer areas. If you are planning to partially cook a food item to speed up the finish time on a grill or in the conventional oven, it is vital that you transfer from the microwave to the other heat source immediately. Partially cooking food and storing for later creates a perfect environment for bacteria to breed and illness to occur. Likewise, using the microwave to defrost food is a wonderful aid to reducing overall cooking time but also creates an increased risk for bacterial growth since parts of the frozen food may begin cooking during the defrosting process. Be sure to allow a short standing time before checking the internal temperature of the food with a clean food thermometer once the food has finished cooking. Food continues to cook after removal from the microwave so providing that extra few minutes can ensure the internal temperature has reached 165 degrees F like the outside. Because of the risks of BPA leaching from plastics, cooking or re-heating in plastic containers in a microwave is not recommended.

To learn more specific food safety information to keep your holidays safe, check out the USDA Safe Food Handling Fact Sheets.

Have you been an offender of any of these food-handling mistakes? What will you do differently this holiday season as you prepare your meals?

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  • 61
    the only "offense" I have made is reheating leftovers. Cold turkey sandwiches are the best. I used to stuff turkeys but stopped doing it so I could speed up the cooking time. Otherwise I am super careful that everything is as clean and food-safe as possible, even if it means putting away leftovers immediately after I finish eating. I have had mild-moderate food poisoning too many times from other holiday cooks so i make sure that won't happen when i am doing the cooking and clean up. - 1/4/2010   10:59:00 PM
    If your turkey has a "pop-up" temperature indicator, it is recommended that you also check the internal temperature of the turkey in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast with a food thermometer. The minimum internal temperature should reach 165 F for safety. This is from the "USDA" web-site. (Some turkey producers suggest 180 degrees).
    - 11/24/2009   12:44:07 PM
  • 59
    I am surprised I am alive after reading this! I must have eaten much bacteria.

    I think I will be more aware when microwaving different thicknesses of meat - 11/22/2009   7:59:57 PM
  • 58
    Thanks for the tips, have a great holiday all! - 11/21/2009   3:59:12 PM
  • 57
    Warm pumpkin pie? Sounds gross! - 11/21/2009   8:52:32 AM
  • 56
    Thanks for all the tips! - 11/20/2009   7:33:28 PM
  • 55
    Thanks for sharing ! - 11/20/2009   5:53:25 PM
  • 54
    Great tips. I'm glad to find out about using shallow storage containers and plastic bags for leftovers. Thank you. - 11/18/2009   8:34:40 PM
  • 53
    I would agree with the comments that these risks are relatively low. Still... - 11/18/2009   4:42:10 PM
  • 52
    great tips thanks! - 11/18/2009   3:32:39 PM
  • 51
    If you cook a turkey at 325 degrees, then for how long? I have always cooked at 200 degrees one hour per pound. - 11/18/2009   3:29:01 PM
    Thanks so much for the reminders! Good points all - 11/18/2009   9:05:00 AM
  • 49
    Thanks a lot. Terrific information. The tip about thoroughly reheating leftovers is important to know all year long. - 11/18/2009   5:38:55 AM
  • 48
    To keep white turkey meat moist: Preheat the oven to 450F (seals in juices), and roast it UPSIDE DOWN. Juices from dark meat sift down into white breast meat. I throw away all the fatty skin. We carve the bird before serving, so we don't need a gorgeous golden breast sticking up to admire for a minute or 2. That just isn't worth all the ruined, dry, white meat. - 11/17/2009   10:36:48 AM
    Great information. I always cook my turkey at 400 for an hour then finish at 350 - 11/17/2009   8:42:30 AM
  • 46
    good info - 11/17/2009   7:24:16 AM
  • 45
    Lots of good information. - 11/17/2009   6:04:22 AM
  • LJ1225
    Great tips, but don't forget to sanitize the sink AFTER the turkey's been in there too! However, that being said, I have always slow-roasted my turkey and probably will again this year. I always check to be sure the internal temp is high enough though before I take it out "to rest" for 20 minutes. I put the turkey on at midnight and love waking up to the house smelling so yummy! Just the aroma probably adds to my calories for the day! LOL - 11/17/2009   5:41:02 AM
    Great tips to keep everyone safe from food-borne illnesses. - 11/17/2009   5:30:59 AM
  • 42
    These are so important, and yet we don't think of simple things such as sanitizing our sink before we use the hot water thawing method. Thanks so much for reminding us of the common sense things we must do to have a food-safe holiday. - 11/17/2009   4:18:21 AM
  • 41
    That's funny. I thought that I was the only person that thought some of these tips are a bit paranoid. Bacteria is a given, and many of these scenarios have been done many times before without any ill doing. Even still, it's an interesting article.. - 11/17/2009   2:25:07 AM
  • 40
    Have used cooking bags for decades. Easy way to ensure a good internal temp, even in the stuffing and the birds never come out dry unless there was something really "off" with the bird in question. And then I wouldn't call them dry. More "off" on how the meat cooked. Only had a couple of those over the years. Usually discount "fresh" young turkeys. Each their own of course but I wont be skipping those bags.

    Also, having been a desert dweller, I found cooking my turkey outside on the grill in the bag and pan worked wonders to help prevent an overheated house. I know this rarely applies to most of the country during that time, but if you have the right sized grill it really works well as an oven. It also frees up your oven for cooking other things while the bird is cooking. - 11/17/2009   12:24:10 AM
  • 39
    I've never had a dry turkey, and don't own a roasting pan - always, always use an oven cooking bag - reduces the amount of time and keeps the moisture close - and it's great at clean-up time! - 11/16/2009   10:25:20 PM
  • 38
    Slow cooking the turkey? I want my turkey done shortly before we eat not 7:00 AM. - 11/16/2009   9:23:13 PM
    Good luck to everyone out there that will be cooking Thanksgiving dinner--it is quite a task and one to be proud of. - 11/16/2009   9:15:11 PM
    ok i think we've gone a little overboard here...slow cooking the turkey for hours has been done for how many years? and we've all grown up, relatively, normal and healthy. i'm down with making sure your cooking area is neat and clean and being careful with the microwave, but come on now...lets be reasonable, and enjoy that turkey - 11/16/2009   7:53:53 PM
  • 35
    Some of this is just paranoid BS. For instance I always thaw out meat on the counter and I have never been sick. Slow cooking is not safe? Well then why aren't people posting forums all the time about the food poisoning they're getting after eating a crock pot meal? Give me a break. - 11/16/2009   7:06:25 PM
  • 34
    I remember my grandmother cooking our Thanksgiving turkey overnight in the oven. I never thought about this practice breeding bacteria before reading this, but it makes sense! Thank goodness I was never as dedicated to preparing the perfect turkey! - 11/16/2009   6:00:54 PM
  • 33
    Some really good ideas. I know most of them, but this is a great time of year for the reminder! Thanks again!! - 11/16/2009   5:22:20 PM
  • 32
    I didn't realize the danger of using big containers when refrigerating the left overs. I usually try to not let the food set out for hours but try to get it put away as soon as possible to avoid food poisoning. - 11/16/2009   2:20:03 PM
  • 31
    I never even thought of the sink, silly me! That is one thing I am definitely going to do! Thanks! - 11/16/2009   1:40:18 PM
  • 30
    Thanks so much i saved this so i can look back at it !!! - 11/16/2009   1:33:49 PM
  • TRABOLD8567
    Thank you. Very timely info!! - 11/16/2009   1:21:35 PM
  • 28
    Good article! I thought it was going to be about nutrition and calories...and I'm glad it wasn't! (I tend to think relaxing one day nutritionally every so often isn't a horrible thing.) Anyway good information. - 11/16/2009   1:08:38 PM
  • 27
    Probably won't change anything we do. Since I'm the one that makes the mashed potatoes we "pre-leftover" ours and they never know the difference, heh heh. Leftovers are usually put away within 2 hours regardless and the pumpkin pie will likely sit out like it always has since no one's gotten sick from it in the 30+ years I've been around. - 11/16/2009   12:51:22 PM
  • 26
    Like others here I realize the "possibility of conatamination" but remember growing up and not having half of the problems with contamination and no one ever got sick. - 11/16/2009   12:37:41 PM
  • NIKA869
    Very very informative. Thanks for the tips. - 11/16/2009   12:20:51 PM
  • 24
    God tips will keep for future reference - 11/16/2009   11:31:06 AM
  • 23
    I know it's *possible* to get sick from these mistakes, but we've been doing some of them for decades (like leaving pumpkin pie out) and no one has ever been sick. Is it really necessary? I kind of doubt it. - 11/16/2009   11:28:19 AM
  • 22
    I never considered before the danger of putting leftovers in large containers and the affect of temperature. I like the idea of using the zip lock bags. They would take up less room, too. - 11/16/2009   11:28:13 AM
    Wow! We used to not use plastic in the micro. Then we started again. Thanks for the reminder. - 11/16/2009   11:16:56 AM
  • 20
    We are pretty good about most of these in my household. Sometimes though the pies, & leftovers sit out quite a bit. I will be careful. Thanks for the good information. - 11/16/2009   11:02:38 AM
  • 19
    Lord I am a safety nut so I always take precautions whenever I cook. - 11/16/2009   10:57:14 AM
    I will use these suggestins this year. Thanks. - 11/16/2009   10:37:24 AM
    I was surprised about the Pumpkin pie because it is always just on a shelf at the grocery store.....now I know! - 11/16/2009   10:32:58 AM
  • 16
    Thank you for the timely reminders about food safety.
    Just a little tip on how to get your turkey moist. Since the breast meat is always the drier part of the turkey, I put the bird in the pan with the breast side down. This allows for the juices to moisturize the drier meat. It really turns out well.

    God Bless you all and let us all remember to be Thankful for all of our blessings! - 11/16/2009   10:22:34 AM
  • 15
    I used to co-manage a restaurant so I know these great tips are straight from the Health Department.
    Wouldn't be a bad idea to run this blog again the 1st of next week. - 11/16/2009   10:18:12 AM
    Thank you so much for keeping us safe this holiday! - 11/16/2009   10:10:14 AM
  • 13
    I know it's important to be cautious, but what has happened to our food supply that we have to be that cautious ? I'm no spring chicken, but I remember things my mom used to do when cooking and we never got e.coli. Example, my mom used to use the SAME cutting board for meat and vegetables ! Today, I have one board for each use. Why ? because of worries about salmonella contamination.

    My mom used to leave frozen ground beef and fish out on the kitchen table to thaw too. My mom even slow cooked the turkey for Thanksgiving. We didn't get sick. So, I don't get it. Is our food supply that tainted today ?

    Yes, we must be careful, but why isn't our food fresh anymore ??
    - 11/16/2009   10:09:03 AM
  • 12
    I recently started reheating meat on 50% power - good method to keep the meat from drying out, too! - 11/16/2009   10:06:25 AM

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