The holidays provide the perfect opportunity to create an elaborate family feast. But before you start firing up the oven, keep in mind that cooking a big meal comes with some risks. If you're not careful, bacteria and other organisms may contaminate your meal. This can lead to food poisoning and other food-related illnesses.

Fortunately, there are simple precautions you can take to protect yourself and your family. Some of the more common organisms that cause food-related illnesses are e-coli, salmonella, listeria, and parasites. Though they might sound scary, these organisms can be killed by following basic food safety practices. Make sure your holiday meal is happy and healthy: Adopt these four food-handling safety techniques while preparing your next big feast.


This may seem obvious, but it's easy to forge the importance of keeping your kitchen clean. Before you start cooking, clean your counter surfaces with hot, soapy water and wipe them down with paper towels or clean cloths. If you use cloth towels, make sure to wash them regularly on your washing machine's hot cycle.

Next, wash your hands, utensils, dishes, and cutting boards with hot, soapy water. Make sure you do this before and after you prepare each item of your meal.

Lastly, be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables before cutting them. Hold each item under running water for at least ten seconds to wash away any dirt or lingering pesticides. Then, simply dry the fruit or vegetable with a paper towel or clean cloth. You don't need to use soap or chemicals. You also don't need to wash raw meat, poultry, or eggs, since washing these items may actually spread bacteria to the rest of your kitchen.


Once you've scoured your surfaces with hot, soapy water, you might think you are in the clear to cook up a storm! Think again: The bacteria found on raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs can still spread bacteria to other fresh or ready-to-eat foods. This is called cross-contamination, and you can only avoid it by keeping these foods separated.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends using separate cutting boards to keep foods apart: One cutting board for meat, another for poultry, and another for fruits and vegetables. Only combine ingredients once you are ready to begin cooking, and be sure to wash your hands between handling raw meats and fresh foods. Remember that everything you touch after handling raw meats will be contaminated unless you clean your hands with hot, soapy water.


Even though certain foods might "look" done, it's important to test the temperature before you serve them. You'll need a special food thermometer to test the internal temperature of various meats to be sure they are safe for eating. The Centers for Disease Control recommends cooking these meats to a specific temperature:

  • Whole meats should reach an internal temperature of at least 145?F (be sure to allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or consuming)
  • Ground meats must be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160?F
  • Poultry must be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165?F, including chicken and turkey

It is also important to take care as to how you thaw meat. Never leave frozen meat sitting on a counter to thaw at room temperature, since this increases bacteria production. Meat can be safely thawed in cold water, in the refrigerator, or in the microwave.


If you are making a large meal this holiday, it's likely that you'll need to store various items in your refrigerator. To keep your foods safe while they wait, make sure that your refrigerator is at 40?F, and that all items are stored with a lid or plastic wrap over openings. If you make a big trip to the grocery store, be sure to store any purchases that need to be kept cold - like meat - in your refrigerator. Bacteria can start multiplying on unrefrigerated food in as little as 2 hours - and even less, if you keep your home warm and toasty.

HealthAhead Hint: Cook Safe for Happy Holidays

One of the best parts of the holiday season is coming together with family and sharing a delicious meal. But a warm family occasional can quickly become stressful if someone - or multiple people - become sick from eating the food. That's why food safety should always be your top priority. Be mindful of the steps you're taking as you prepare your meal. When in doubt, wash your hands, cooking implements, and surface areas again with hot, soapy water. Stick to the four techniques of food safety - Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill - to ensure that your family meal will be as safe as it is delicious.