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Top 5 Food Safety Tips for the Holidays

Contributor Abeer Bader, MSc, RD, LDN
7 minute read
Family baking with raw cookie dough

From latkes to tamales and fish to figgy pudding, there’s a traditional food for almost every winter holiday celebrated around the globe. Each year, people come together over holiday foods both savory and sweet, connecting over memories and looking toward the days ahead.

Foodborne illness is probably one of the last things you want to worry about when you’re getting ready to host or attend a holiday feast. But with an estimated 48 million Americans contracting food poisoning each year, it’s just as important to prepare food safely as it is to plan for your family’s favorite dessert.

Abeer Bader, MSc, RD, LDN, is a Mass General Brigham dietitian, and the lead clinical nutrition specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center. Below, she shares her top five holiday food safety tips so you can cook with confidence this season.

  1. Clean your surfaces (and hands) before you start prepping food.

Even a spotless kitchen can be the source of foodborne illness. That’s why it’s important to consider cleaning the first step in any food preparation you do.

Clean up all the surfaces you’ll be using with hot water, dish soap, and clean (or paper) towels. Be sure to clean all the cooking tools you’ll be using as well. This will help remove dirt, particles, and some bacteria.

Next, it’s time to sanitize. “There are specific sanitizing sprays that you can use on surfaces food will touch,” Bader says. Sanitizing will kill any bacteria that are still present.

Finally, wash your hands thoroughly — both before you begin preparations and any time you handle raw food.

  1. Be strategic when thawing meat.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, frozen food is indefinitely safe — but once it gets warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria can start to multiply.

Bader explains that there are three different ways to thaw meat safely:

  1. On the lowest shelf of your refrigerator. “Sometimes, people will set poultry to thaw on the top shelf of their refrigerator,” Bader says. “That’s a huge health hazard because if their meat drips as it thaws, drops can linger on the lower shelves. So, when it comes to meat, you want to put it on the lowest shelf possible — and in its own tub or container.”

  2. In cold water. “You can thaw meat in a large bowl of water — but you need to change that water every 30 minutes,” says Bader. If you’re using the cold-water method, be sure to cook your meat immediately once it has thawed.

  3. In the microwave. “This can be as simple as using the defrost button on your microwave,” says Bader. If you choose to thaw meat in the microwave, you must also be sure to cook it at once.

If you’re in a rush, it’s also safe to cook frozen food without thawing it — but expect it to take a bit longer to cook all the way through.

  1. Take steps to avoid food contamination and cross-contamination.

Food can become contaminated in several ways. Cross-contamination, for instance, happens when raw foods like chicken, fish, meat, or eggs touch foods that won’t (or don’t need to) be cooked.

To avoid this, Bader advises washing your hands after handling raw meat, and using separate cutting boards for raw meat and vegetables. “You want to think about surfaces. If you contaminate a surface with raw meat, make sure you wash it well before fruits or vegetables touch it.”

Contamination can also be a concern with cooked food. “Someone who hasn’t washed their hands well, or a person who may be feeling a bit under the weather, can contaminate food at parties,” she adds. “That’s why I’d recommend the use of utensils in the food-serving process and good hand hygiene.” If you’re hosting a party, consider supplying serving utensils for all your food options, using cups, napkins, and toothpicks to make it easy to take food without touching it. Let your friends sit this holiday gathering out if they’re coming down with an illness.

At parties, food is often left out on the counter too long. Cheeses, meats, and dairy should not be left out for more than two hours and should be refrigerated.

Abeer Bader, MSc, RD, LD
Mass General Brigham

  1. Cook foods thoroughly before eating or serving.

Planning to bring a baked good to your next party? It can be tempting to taste-test batter or dough before it’s been fully baked. But unfortunately, raw dough can be a major source of food poisoning.

“Salmonella bacteria is the biggest risk when it comes to eating raw batter or dough — anything containing raw or undercooked eggs,” Bader says. In addition, flour, raw ground meat, meat that’s improperly cooked, raw milk/cheeses and contaminated vegetables may have harmful E. coli bacteria which can also cause serious illness.

“Use a thermometer to ensure holiday cooking safety,” recommends Bader. “That way, you can make sure your meats and other foods have been cooked to the appropriate minimum internal temperature.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer the following guidelines for meat cooking temperatures:

  • Whole cuts of beef, veal, lamb, and pork: 145 degrees Fahrenheit (then let it rest for 3 minutes)

  • Fish with fins: 145 degrees Fahrenheit (or until the flesh is opaque and flakes easily)

  • Ground meats such as pork or beef: 160 degrees Fahrenheit

  • All poultry, including ground chicken and turkey: 165 degrees Fahrenheit

  • Leftovers and casseroles: 165 degrees Fahrenheit

Baked goods should also be thoroughly cooked before they are served.

  1. Store foods promptly and properly.

“At parties, food is often left out on the counter too long,” Bader says, “and then you’re putting it back in the fridge when it should be discarded. Cheeses, meats, and dairy should not be left out for more than 2 hours and should be refrigerated.”

Leftovers are an often-overlooked potential source for foodborne illness as well. “We often rely on leftovers — but how long has that leftover food been in the fridge? Sometimes it’s been a week and we still eat it. But, in fact, the recommendation is to store food in the fridge for no longer than 3 to 4 days,” Bader says. “So, if you think you have more leftovers than you can eat in that time, you should immediately freeze them and only keep three days’ worth in the fridge.”

Bakers may wonder: How long does raw cookie dough last in the fridge? If you’re using homemade dough that’s wrapped or well-sealed, it can be refrigerated for 3 to 5 days — or frozen for up to 2 months.

Sharing food is a classic winter holiday tradition — and by ensuring food safety for the holidays, you can protect the people you treasure. Keep foodborne illness at bay so you can provide your loved ones with one of the greatest gifts of all: a happy holiday memory.

Headshot of Abeer Bader, MSc, RD, LDN


Abeer Bader, MSc, RD, LDN