Safely Savor the Season at Your Next Holiday Gathering
One characteristic of American culture that I never thought about much until working in food safety is how we eat at holiday gatherings. Everyone has their own style, of course, but I noticed a few key patterns.
First, we tend to eat across a wide timespan and graze over a buffet-like spread. I’m all for slowly savoring your meal, but it often means that food sits out for long periods of time as we snack, sip, and socialize. As a guest at these types of gatherings, my anxiety level gradually rises as the clock ticks, because I know once food has been sitting out past a certain time, the greater the chances these foods could make us sick. Once foods enter what we call the Temperature Danger Zone – above 41°F to below 135°F – pathogens grow more quickly. I know people aren’t exactly checking food temperatures as if it were a game of Power Hour, but a general awareness of how long food is left out in this temperature range is a key practice for preventing foodborne illness. Perishable foods, which in the food safety world we call “TCS”, or “time and temperature control for safety” foods, should not be left in the Danger Zone for more than 4 hours. TCS foods are things like casseroles, salads, dishes containing meat, poultry, seafood and/or egg, cream filled desserts and dips, and fresh cut produce like melons, tomatoes, and leafy greens. Research shows that after 4 hours in the Danger Zone, pathogens have had a chance to reach levels that could lead to foodborne illness if eaten.
Another thing I became more aware of was the foods made and transported by guests. Dishes are often made ahead of time by both hosts and guests, sometimes even up to several days in advance. They could be cooked and then stored in the refrigerator, just put straight into the refrigerator, or sometimes – it hurts to imagine this scenario for TCS foods – made ahead and just left on the counter. Right before bringing to the gathering, some dishes are heated or re-heated, and others chilled. Some are brought straight from the store (no shame, people are busy). The ones on the counter are still sitting there (if this is you, please keep reading).
Unless you plan on asking every guest for the preparation details of their dish, you’re not going to know how it was handled before it got to the gathering. This adds another layer of uncertainty. Was it cooked to a safe internal temperature? Was it cooled and stored promptly? Did its internal temperature drop below 135°F or rise above 41°F on its way to the gathering? How long was it in the Temperature Danger Zone before making it to the table? How much time is left before the 4-hour mark is reached?
Put a bit more thought into what you bring to your next gathering besides just how it will taste or look (and remember – you can’t taste, smell, or see foodborne pathogens). How can you safely prepare ahead of time? How can you transport it safely? How can you keep it cold or hot at the gathering?
Cook foods completely to safe internal temperatures. If making cooked TCS foods ahead, transfer to a shallow container or containers and refrigerate immediately to cool quickly. Store made-ahead TCS foods at 41°F or below. Transport safely by putting chilled dishes in a cooler with ice packs, and store in the trunk when it’s cold outside. Keep hot dishes warm in an insulated bag kept inside the vehicle instead of the trunk. Don’t heat or pack dishes until you’re just ready to leave. If it’s a hot dish, you can also ask the host if you can cook or re-heat it at their place instead, or bring a slow cooker to keep the food hot. Ask the host if there are any allergens you should omit, like nuts, wheat, dairy, eggs, or seafood.
If you’re extra lucky and are invited to attend multiple potlucks in one night, strategize what you can bring. If it feels like too much to worry about temperature control, opt for things that are not TCS, like baked snacks and desserts (crackers, cookies, cakes, or brownies work well – but no cream filling or cream cheese icing), nuts or seeds, or fresh produce (avoiding cut melons, leafy greens or tomatoes).
The holidays are a time for us to celebrate the season with good food and good company. Let’s do what we can to keep unsafe food and unwanted company (ahem, foodborne illness) from ruining our celebrations.
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