Food safety tips for the holidays

10th November, 2020 • 8 min read

The last thing you want during the holidays is for you and your guests to come down with food poisoning.

Follow these tips to make sure you store, prepare and cook food safely this holiday season so you don’t let a foodborne illness ruin the festivities.

How to store and prepare food safely

Storing food in the fridge

Bacteria grow more slowly at colder temperatures, but they thrive at room temperature. If food is left out, this increases your risk of

food poisoning

So when you’ve bought your ingredients, put any food that needs to be kept cool in the fridge within 2 hours, such as raw fish or a dairy products like milk or fresh cream. If the outdoor temperature is hot (above 30C), get the food in the fridge within 1 hour.

If you’re storing food such as raw meat or dairy in your fridge, make sure the temperature of the fridge is below 5C. Most bacteria grow at 8C or above.

When storing foods like raw meat, eggs or seafood in the fridge, keep them away from items that are ready to eat, such as cheese, sandwiches or fruit. This keeps the risk of cross-contamination at a minimum.

You should also keep any raw food items like meat in the coldest part of your fridge until you need to cook it. This is usually the bottom shelf, as cold air sinks while hot air rises. Storing raw meat at the bottom of the fridge also removes the risk of it dripping onto ready-to-eat items which might be below.

Storing food in the freezer

Most bacteria won’t grow on food while it’s stored in a freezer, but they stay alive. This means the bacteria can start growing again when food is taken out of the freezer, especially if items are left to thaw at room temperature.

So when you take food out of the freezer, make sure you defrost it in the fridge or microwave (using the defrost setting) and not at room temperature to minimise the growth of bacteria.

Once food is defrosted it should be cooked and eaten within 24 hours. If you want to freeze it again, it must be cooked first. Once defrosted, raw food shouldn't be frozen again as this increases the risk of bacteria.

How to prepare food safely

Defrost food fully

If you’re preparing food that’s been frozen, defrost it fully in the fridge.

Large pieces of meat, such as a large cut of beef or a whole turkey, can take up to 4 days to defrost in the fridge, so make sure items are removed from the freezer in plenty of time.

If a piece of meat is not fully defrosted when you come to cook it, some parts of it may not cook properly, meaning that bacteria may still be present after cooking. This could make you ill when you eat it.

Only take food out of the fridge a short time (30 minutes) before you plan to cook it. If it's left out at room temperature, bacteria can grow on it.

Wash hands, worktops, and fruits and vegetables

When food is ready to prepare, wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before touching it, and repeat this after touching raw food, such as meat, eggs or vegetables.

This is important because bacteria can spread from raw food, like seafood or meat, onto the chopping board and knife you’re using, and onto your hands.

If you don’t wash your hands and you touch your mouth, this can lead to food poisoning.

You should also remember to wash your hands after you touch a bin or pet, or go to the loo while preparing food.

And remember to wipe down surfaces with hot water and soap before and directly after preparing food to help remove any germs that may cause food poisoning. The same should be done with any items you use to prepare food, such as knives and chopping boards.

You should also keep the chopping boards you use to prepare raw foods like fish or meat separate from those used to prepare foods that are cooked or ready to eat. This can help to avoid cross-contamination.

Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria is moved from 1 item of food to another, for example, when bacteria from a raw piece of turkey is spread to a cooked piece of turkey. If this happens and you eat that cooked piece of turkey, it can make you ill.

When it comes to cleaning food:

  • wash fruit and vegetables — rinse them under cold water and rub the outer layer to remove any dirt and bacteria. Root vegetables, like carrots, may not need to be washed if you peel them, as peeling may also remove bacteria
  • don’t wash raw meat or fish — don’t wash these raw food items as this won’t remove bacteria and may spray bacteria onto your clothes, apron or nearby items. Instead, pat it dry with kitchen towel and dispose of this in the bin before washing your hands again. Bacteria will be killed during cooking

Washing vegetables and other items like lettuce will remove most germs but not all of them.

If you’ve bought a packet of salad leaves, check the label to see if it’s been washed already. If it hasn’t, wash the leaves thoroughly and throw out any that look brown. Then dry them in a clean paper towel before eating.

How to cook meat safely

Whether you’re cooking pieces of chicken, a whole bird like a turkey or duck, or burgers made of minced meat, it’s important you make sure the meat is cooked properly before you eat it.

Cooking food properly will kill any bacteria.

If you’re not sure what the temperature and cooking time should be, check the food packaging or a recipe.

To check that the food is thoroughly cooked, insert a knife or fork into its thickest part of the meat, such as between the breast and leg if you’re cooking a whole bird. The juices should be clear, and the meat should be brown, not pink.

The meat should also be steaming when you take it out of the oven or off the barbecue.

You can also insert a thermometer into the thickest part of a piece of meat or bird to check the temperature. For a rough guide, if your thermometer reading is around 70C and remains at this temperature for 2 minutes, your food is cooked.

If you’re cooking a turkey, find out

how to safely cook a turkey

Food safety tips for leftovers

If you have any food left over, cool it thoroughly before putting it in the fridge or freezer. Make sure it’s fully covered before putting it away. You should try to cool it down within 90 minutes, if possible, to minimise the growth of bacteria.

If it’s warm in your kitchen because of the oven being on, place your leftover food in a covered container, such as a bowl with cling film, and place it near an open window or move it to a cooler room. This will help the cooling process.

Any leftovers stored in the fridge should be eaten within 2 days.

If you reheat leftover food, check that it’s steaming and reaches the same temperature of 70C before eating it.

And if you freeze any leftovers, defrost them thoroughly before cooking. Once cooked, don’t reheat them for a second time. Cooling and reheating leftover food repeatedly increases your risk of food poisoning.

If you’re still worried about the risk of food poisoning, here’s more information about

how to spot signs of food poisoning
and other
ways to prevent food poisoning

Key points

  • storing food at room temperature increases your risk of food poisoning as bacteria thrive under these conditions. They grow more slowly at colder temperatures
  • store food in the fridge until just before you’re ready to cook it
  • if food is frozen, remove it from the freezer in plenty of time and defrost it in the fridge or microwave and not at room temperature
  • wash your hands, any equipment and surfaces regularly with warm water and soap when preparing food, and use different chopping boards for raw meat and ready-to-eat foods
  • raw meat should always be cooked until it’s steaming hot and the juices run clear to make sure bacteria is killed

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.