Making Sure Holiday Meals Are Ready on Time and Handled Safely

— Written By Katrina Levine

I’m one of those people that generally wants to know exactly how to do things the way they’re intended to be done, so I rely heavily on instructions. When it comes to recipes, though, I’m a bit more relaxed and tend to go with my “gut” about how to prepare things. This is probably because with practice, I’ve become very comfortable in the kitchen.

However, I’m also a one-pot-meal kind of girl who doesn’t usually make several things at the same time. My confidence got the better of me one year at Thanksgiving (ok, several years in a row, if I’m being honest). I had found these amazing cornbread stuffing and green bean casserole recipes and couldn’t wait to try them. Since I’m more of a foodie than the rest of my family, I happily offered to take responsibility for both these new, from-scratch recipes. Somehow the idea that I’d need to be preparing these alongside my mom and sister who would also be preparing several other dishes at the same time didn’t dawn on me until the day before the big meal. My sister raised her eyes at me after finding out I had not prepped nearly any of the ingredients in advance, clearly doubting my abilities. I thought I had everything under control until I entered the three-ring circus that was my mom’s kitchen the next morning.

For the most part, things went well. I was multitasking like a Chopped champion – stirring pots, checking times, and slicing and dicing. I was repeatedly checking the recipes on my phone (don’t worry, I washed my hands after each check) before each step to make sure I was doing it correctly. About 45 minutes before everything was supposed to be ready, I popped the stuffing into the oven alongside several other dishes and the turkey, and took one last look at the instructions: “Cook for 45 minutes covered, then uncover and cook for another 30 minutes…”

Oops.

Despite how many times I’d read the recipe, I apparently didn’t fully grasp the total time the stuffing needed to cook. My sister was definitely ticked off when I told her that the stuffing needed even more time to cook, and that it was going to delay dinner. We devised a quick solution by reorganizing the contents of the oven like a game of Tetris and utilizing hot plates to keep food warm until we were ready. My family, who was already frustrated with me at this point, only became more frustrated when I wouldn’t let them eat the stuffing until I made sure it was at least 165°F. We finally sat down to enjoy our laborious meal about an hour later.

No one got sick that year and everything tasted fantastic, but we also had the right equipment and space to keep foods at safe temperatures. Meal timing for the average home cook is an often-overlooked issue in food preparation because it impacts not only food quality (food starts to get cold and there are texture changes), but safety too because food temperatures can enter the Temperature Danger Zone as it sits (between 41°F and 135°F), leaving less time to eat it up or cool down left overs to safe temperatures. Storing leftovers as soon as you’re done eating becomes critical because holiday meals can last for a while, and food that sits out in the Temperature Danger Zone for more than 4 hours can be unsafe to eat.

Being comfortable in the kitchen is not an excuse for slacking off on preparing food safely. I’ve come to appreciate and respect the value of instructions and guidelines for cooking, especially when it comes to following a recipe and ensuring that my food is prepared and cooked safely. Unfortunately, many recipes do not provide accurate, evidence-based food safety guidance. On top of that, there’s not always enough information within a recipe to accurately time steps in its preparation. Sometimes if we’re lucky, they’ll throw in a “meanwhile” or “next,” or an “after 30 minutes” if we’re really lucky. And this is all for just one recipe. When it comes to meals, especially holiday meals, we’re talking about making multiple recipes that all need to be ready at the same time. I’ve never heard of a cookbook giving an entire meal preparation play-by-play for those of us who have less experience with cooking multiple dishes at once, but maybe they should. All of this adds up to poorly-timed meals where some dishes sit out, cooling down into the Temperature Danger Zone, while they wait for the rest of the meal. Depending on the quality of the instructions, those dishes may or may not be have been prepared safely to begin with, further increasing the chances that someone could get sick from the meal.

Think about what your making, and take some time to coordinate with others who will be preparing food at the same time in the same space. Read all of the directions in your recipes multiple times and note the times needed for all of the steps. Decide when you’ll prepare and cook dishes and ingredients so that food doesn’t sit out without temperature control. If oven space is an issue, think about ways you can make something similar on the stove or with another kitchen appliance like a slow cooker, or try a differently shaped pan. It’ll be less stressful on you and your loved ones, and safer for everyone. Don’t let foodborne illness be the secret ingredient in your holiday meal.

For more holiday food safety tips (and gift ideas), follow @SafePlatesFSIC on Facebook and Twitter, and @safeplates_ncsu on Instagram.

Photo from Stock-Free.org (public domain)