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Keep holiday parties, dinners trouble-free

December 07, 1999|By LYNN F. LITTLE

The holiday season can be a very special time for families and friends to get together. But if proper care is not taken, the unfortunate symptoms - nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches - of food-borne illness can be an unwelcome guest.

cont. from lifestyle

Food-borne illness is more likely to occur after parties or holiday meals for a number of reasons. The quantity of food handled is much larger than normal; therefore, normal cooking and cooling techniques may not be adequate.

Foods may have been carted a long distance and held at warm temperatures for a long time before being eaten. And, it's more enjoyable to talk with guests than put leftovers away promptly after everyone has eaten, especially when there is enough food left over to feed a small army.

You can't depend on how food looks, smells or tastes to tell you if there is a food safety problem. Food can look fine, smell normal and taste delicious, but still have enough bacteria or bacterial poison in it to make you ill. The best way to ensure that food is safe to eat is to know that it has been handled properly.


Time and temperature are the most critical safety factors to consider when handling holiday foods. The old rule to keep "hot foods hot and cold foods cold" still applies. It's just harder to keep large quantities below 40 degrees or above 140 degrees.

Do not allow perishable food to remain between 40 degrees and 140 degrees for more than two hours. The most perishable foods include moist foods, food mixtures and foods that contain meats, fish, poultry, eggs and milk.

Handling food safely is important daily - but especially when large groups of people are involved. Here are some tips to help you keep holiday foods safe.

1. Always work with clean hands and equipment. Be particularly careful after preparing raw meat, fish or poultry. Wash all utensils and work surfaces with hot, soapy water before reusing them for another food.

2. Use a meat thermometer. A meat thermometer will ensure that the center of a large piece of meat reaches a safe endpoint temperature.

3. Immediately cool food when preparing in advance.

Refrigerate or freeze food in small, shallow containers so the center of the food cools quickly. Leave space around each warm container you place in the refrigerator so cool air can reach all sides. Just having food in a refrigerator doesn't guarantee that the center of a thick mass will cool to 40 degrees in a safe period of time.

4. Similar rules apply to leftovers. Don't let leftovers sit on the table after the meal is over. Covering food doesn't stop the growth of bacteria. Reheating may kill bacteria, but some kinds of bacterial toxins aren't destroyed by normal cooking temperatures.

5. Keep food refrigerated right up to serving time. Prepare several small serving dishes of each plate of hors d'oeuvres so most of the food can remain refrigerated, rather than stand for hours on a serving table.

6. Keep perishable foods cold when serving. When serving perishable cold foods on a buffet table, place them over a larger dish of ice.

7. Keep warm foods warm when serving. Serve warm foods on warming trays or in slow cookers that you have tested in advance to see that they keep hot foods hot.

The holidays are a special time for being with family and friends. Keep them safe and healthy by following safe food handling practices.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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