Part of the fun of Christmas and the holiday season is catching up with family and friends and helping out by sharing dishes at celebratory events. But preparing food for a lot of people can be risky especially at this time of the year when several generations get together. Young children, the elderly, those with compromised immune systems and pregnant women can be severely affected by food poisoning.
There are a few reasons why a holiday party can mean a greater risk of food poisoning, including:
- the average home kitchen is not designed for cooking for a lot of people
- guests often bring food to share, which means food can be out of the fridge for several hours, enough time for bacteria to multiply
- many people start preparing food well ahead of an event. For some non-perishable items, such as a Christmas cake, that’s fine. But other foods, such as casseroles or desserts, need to be carefully prepared and then chilled or frozen quickly.
Follow the tips below to avoid giving a gift your friends and family don’t want!
Some simple planning can protect your family and friends, so talk to them early to work out who will prepare what food. Arrange to cook the riskier foods like meat and turkey on site where the Christmas dinner is going to be and use a meat thermometer to make sure it is cooked to 75°C in the thickest part of the meat.
Ask guests who are travelling for more than an hour to bring safer foods that don’t need refrigeration or keeping hot, such as cakes, biscuits and Christmas puddings. If they like to cook they can always come earlier and help you in your kitchen. Make sure your kitchen and utensils are clean and that everyone washes and dries their hands before handling food.
Those that live less than an hour away could bring hot food in an insulated bag but make sure it is reheated to 75°C before serving.
Those living less than an hour away could also bring refrigerated items like salads and desserts. Refrigerated items should be packed in a cooler or esky straight from the fridge and just before leaving the house. Surround the food with ice bricks, frozen gel packs or frozen drinks. If you are having a BBQ any raw meat or poultry should be packed at the bottom of the cooler in an enclosed plastic container where it can’t drip onto other foods.
Avoid temperature abuse
Temperature abuse is the major cause of foodborne illness at parties and functions. Remember to minimise the time food stays in the temperature danger zone (5°C to 60°C). Learn more about the Temperature danger zone.
Keep hot food hot – use the top of the stove or an oven turned down to just below 100°C. If you want to serve food at less than 60°C, make sure it doesn’t stay at that temperature for more than four hours.
Keep cold food cold – if you prepare food ahead of time, and cool it in the fridge, make sure that the fridge is still operating at or below 5°C even though you’ve loaded it with extra food. Learn more about Fridge and freezer food safety.
Cool food quickly – once the steam stops rising, cover the food and put it in the fridge. You want it to cool as quickly as possible so that spores, which can survive cooking, don’t germinate. You can hasten the cooling process by pre-cooling the hot food in its container in a sink of iced or cold water or putting it into shallow containers and chilling or freezing the food in those. In deep containers it can take days for the centre of the food to reach 5 °C.
Thaw any frozen meat or meals correctly in the fridge allowing sufficient time to thaw completely (usually the day before) or in the microwave on the day of the party. Reheat food fast either on top of the stove, in the oven or in a microwave. Remember those spores are always looking for windows of opportunity to germinate and those germinate cells will grow and make your guests sick.
Domestic fridges are not very large and an overcrowded fridge or freezer does not allow the cold air to circulate freely around the food to keep them adequately frozen or chilled. When the fridge contains a large load of food, it has to work overtime to cope and, particularly if the weather is hot, the temperature inside will rise.
You should have a fridge thermometer inside the fridge so you can check that your fridge is operating at the correct temperature (at or under 5 °C). At these temperatures food poisoning bacteria will multiply very slowly and the food will remain safe for two or three days. Check your fridge temperature regularly, after any newly refrigerated food has had a chance to cool, and adjust the controls to lower the temperature if necessary.
Make sure that raw meat and poultry can’t contaminate ready to eat food. Raw food can contain food poisoning bacteria. This is not a problem if the food is cooked before it is eaten. However, if these bacteria get onto ready to eat food, such as salads, desserts or foods that have already been cooked, they can cause food poisoning. Learn more about cross contamination
You inevitably will run out of space to allow you to do this properly, particularly if your guests are also bringing food which needs to be refrigerated until you are ready to eat, so what should you do?
- Take out the beer. Drinks can’t make you sick if they are inadequately cooled but food can. Fill the laundry sink and insulated containers or buckets with ice to keep beer and soft drinks chilled.
- Ground coffee doesn’t need to be refrigerated just stored in an airtight jar.
- Whole fruit can survive in the fruit bowl or cupboard, as can whole raw vegetables.
- Those jars of pickles, chutneys and bottled sauces that have vinegar on the label can come out too because they won’t be a problem outside the fridge for a couple of days.
- If you still don’t have enough room, make sure the things that are eaten later are in the fridge and leave out the things you will eat first.
Remember the temperature danger zone – these foods can stay out of the fridge for up to four hours in total but must be thrown out after that.
Keep these items at high risk of food poisoning bugs in the fridge:
- cooked meats, deli meats, patés etc. should be left in the fridge until you are ready to eat them
- salads – especially cooked vegetable, pasta or rice salads (whether they contain meat or not)
- ready to eat seafood
- dips and other ready to eat foods
- cream, egg and custard based desserts
- any dish containing raw or minimally cooked eggs, such as home made mayonnaise or sauces.
Preparing and cooking the food
Because of the risks in catering for a large group, you need to be even more careful than usual about preparing food to prevent any bacteria being introduced by cross contamination.
- Wash your hands before you start preparing and between preparing raw and ready to eat foods – learn about Handwashing. Wash chopping boards, knives and anything else which will come into contact with the food between preparing raw and ready to eat foods.
- Cook poultry, minced meats, sausages, tenderised meats and other pre-prepared meats until they reach 75°C in the centre using a meat thermometer. No pink should be visible. Steaks and other solid pieces of meat can be cooked to your preference eg rare or medium rare – if you use a meat thermometer it will help you cook the perfect piece of meat.
- Do not allow cooked meals to cool on the bench. As soon as steam stops rising, refrigerate or freeze in a leak-proof container.
- Don’t prepare food if you have vomiting or diarrhoea (gastroenteritis) – you’ll be sure to pass it on to your family and friends.
- Don’t leave perishable nibbles, like dips and soft cheeses, out in the temperature danger zone for too long. It is better to divide them into small amounts and replenish with fresh portions as required. This also makes them look more appetising. Don’t mix fresh top-ups with ones that have been outside for some time. Low risk foods, such nuts, crisps, crackers, etc. can be topped up every hour or so.
Turkey cooking advice
Turkeys can be big birds and a big problem if you don’t have a plan, so before buying a huge frozen turkey, read the label! Big turkeys take several days to defrost in the fridge, not to mention hours to cook properly, so think whether you really need one a whole, big one. Ask yourself what else are you serving and consider a part turkey, such as a breast, or turkey roll − much easier to defrost and cook to perfection. If you still opt for the whole turkey and cannot source a fresh bird ask your butcher or supplier to defrost the turkey in their cool room so you can pick it up in time for Christmas and refrigerate. Whether full turkey or turkey roll, this meat must be cooked all the way through so use a meat thermometer to check that the temperature in the thickest part reaches 75°C. Because stuffing slows down cooking and cooling, it is best cooked separately.
Trying out new recipes this time of year can be great fun but food poisoning bugs can survive and even grow quickly in foods containing raw egg, like egg nog, home made mayonnaise and desserts such as tiramisu and chocolate mousse, if they aren’t handled properly. If you are tempted to make raw eggs dishes this holiday period (like egg nog, uncooked desserts such as mousses and tiramisu, hollandaise sauces, fresh mayonnaise, aioli, health shakes with added raw egg or steak tartar) you can reduce the likelihood of illness by following the simple tips:
- Dishes containing raw eggs as an ingredient, that aren’t going to be cooked before being eaten, should not be served to those vulnerable people at greater risk from food poisoning such as small children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
- Egg meals should be cooked for these vulnerable people until the yolk in a boiled egg has started to become firm or eggs have become set in omelets or scrambled eggs.
- Check your eggs for visible cracks. If cracked it is safest to discard them or cook thoroughly, for example in a baked cake.
- If you accidentally drop pieces of shell into your egg mixture, it too could be contaminated and the mixture will need thorough cooking.
- Wash your hands with soap and running water and dry thoroughly before handling any food including eggs and after handling eggs or raw meat so you don’t contaminate other food.
- If you are not going to cook the eggs further, don’t separate the yolk from the white using the shell as that could contaminate the raw egg. Invest in a plastic egg separator.
- Prepare raw egg foods just before you are going to consume them and refrigerate immediately at 5°C or below, so the bacteria cannot grow.
- Keep your eggs refrigerated in the cardboard box you purchased them in.
Refrigerate or freeze leftovers immediately after the meal. Divide into small containers so they cool quickly. If leftovers have been in the temperature danger zone for more than 2 hours they should be eaten or refrigerated immediately and for more than 4 hours they must be thrown out. Always store perishable leftovers in the fridge and use them up within two to three days. When reheating food ensure that it is hot all the way through (use a meat thermometer to ensure it is at least 75°C in the centre).
If you want to bring home any leftovers, ask your hosts to put your ice-bricks, gel packs or water bottles into the freezer during the party so that you can transport the leftovers home safely chilled. Put leftovers into the fridge as soon as you get home.
Your Christmas ham will keep several weeks with proper handling. After reading the packaging labels, remove it from its plastic wrap, cover it with clean cloth soaked in water and vinegar so it doesn’t dry out, and store it in the fridge below 5°C. Reduced salt hams are now becoming popular but will not last as long as conventional hams so think how much you are going to use in the next week or so and freeze some for later.