Meals at Thanksgiving and other holidays serve as great social occasions for catching up with family and friends — and for the sake of all gathered, the culinary delights on the table should be not just delicious and visually sumptuous, but also safe.  

Melissa Wright, director of Virginia Tech’s Food Producer Technical Assistance Network, and Alexis Hamilton, assistant professor of food processing microbiology, are both faculty members in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Food Science and Technology. They shared holiday food safety tips of many sorts.

“Of course, when handling food, the first rule is to wash your hands,” said Wright. “Use warm water and soap, washing for at least 20 seconds. Dry your hands on a clean towel or disposable paper towel. Don’t use the same dish towel all day for all kitchen tasks.”

Wright added, “Remember that you may be cooking for a widely-diverse group of people and someone is likely to have an allergy or sensitivity. Making cards to identify a dish and any potential allergens (wheat, milk, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, shellfish, sesame) would be a thoughtful gesture to your guests.”

“Measuring the internal temperature of cooked foods is an important part of food safety,” said Wright. “Measurements should be taken with a food thermometer. You can order one from Amazon today and have it in time for Thanksgiving!”

Wright cited the following recommended internal temperatures for holiday dishes.

  • Poultry (including whole, parts and stuffing) should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165°F.
  • A ham cooked from fresh or smoked should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145°F with a 3-minute rest time before carving.
  • A reheated, fully cooked ham should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 140°F.
  • Casseroles and leftovers should have an internal temperature of at least 165°F.

“Once the meal is over, if there’s anything left unfinished, those leftovers too need to be safely stored and handled,” Hamilton said. “It’s important to keep food out of the danger zone, which is the temperature between 41°F and 135°F. It’s important that foods pass through this range as quickly as possible. Basically, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.”

Hamilton and Wright provide some other general tips including:

  • If you are working with foods fresh from the oven or stove, once removed and placed on the table or tray, there are about four hours to consume, store, or reheat. For foods that were kept in the refrigerator, the time increases to six hours. At that point, a decision must be made to eat, store, or throw out the remaining foods.
  • For storing hot foods, it’s important to let them cool a bit before placing them in either the fridge or freezer.
  • To properly cool foods, follow two-stage cooling guidelines. Stage 1 involves cooling food from 135°F (57°C) to 70°F (21°C) within the first 2 hours. Stage 2 involves cooling from 70°F (21°C) to 41°F (5°C) within the next 4 hours.
  • The best way to ensure proper and safe cooling is to divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers.
  • A general rule of thumb, regardless of the type of food, is to toss those leftovers within three to four days of being placed in the fridge. That is, if your leftovers last that long!

 “Three to four days might not seem long enough,” Hamilton said. “One thing you could do to maximize leftovers involves putting meals onto plates, placing that amount only in the fridge, and putting the rest of the food in the freezer, where it can safely keep for one to three months. However, you should keep in mind that more moisture evaporation will happen the longer the food stays in the freezer, which will change the flavor.”

“As for leftovers once the meal is done, food should be properly stored and sealed using airtight heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap, or freezer paper; or by placing the package inside a plastic storage bag,” Hamilton said.

Here are safe durations for storage for different kinds of Thanksgiving dishes:

  • Casserole-style foods: Three to four days in the fridge and up to four months in the freezer.
  • Cooked bacon: Lasts up to a week in the fridge and two to three months in the freezer.
  • Cooked fish: Three to four days in the fridge, four to six months in the freezer.
  • Cooked ham: Three to four days if sliced, a week if whole in the fridge. Cooked ham lasts one to two months in the freezer.
  • Cooked meat: Three to four days in the fridge, two to three months in the freezer.
  • Cooked poultry: Three to four days in the fridge, four months in the freezer.
  • Macaroni and cheese: Three to four days in the fridge and up to two months in the freezer.

If food has been stored for longer than the FDA-recommended times, there are some warning signs that the food has gone bad:

  • Has something growing on it
  • Smells abnormal
  • Has a weird taste
  • Has a funny texture

If you’re not sure if the food is still good, it’s safter to throw it out. A good rule is, “When in doubt, throw it out,” Hamilton said.

Tools that can help guide include the FDA’s refrigerator and freezer storage chart and the USDA’s Foodkeeper app, which provides guidance on the safe handling, preparation, and storage of foods. “The app offers specific storage timelines for the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry for various products including meat, poultry, produce, seafood, dairy products and eggs, and more,” Hamilton said.  

About Wright
Melissa Wright is director of the Food Producer Technical Assistant Network at Virginia Tech, which supports the food entrepreneur by assisting with starting a food business, nutrition label content, food safety analysis, and pertinent food regulations. The program’s goal is to help Virginia’s food-processing industry produce high-quality, safe, and innovative food products. As part of the Virginia Cooperative Extension network in the Department of Food Science and Technology under the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the program provides affordable and valuable assistance to help food entrepreneurs and businesses bring their products to market of food products produced in Virginia and beyond.

About Hamilton
Alexis Hamilton is an assistant professor of food processing microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Food Science and Technology. Her research focus is identifying evidence-based approaches to enhance food safety while preserving quality for food manufacturers. This includes evaluating novel management strategies in production and storage environments to validate their effects on foodborne pathogens and product quality, designing improved cleaning and sanitation regimens in food processing environments to control foodborne pathogens, particularly in the absence of hygienic design, and examining the changing microbiome and functional dynamics within food production and storage environments to enhance safety and preserve quality.



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