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Vital Signs: Make food safety an important part of your Thanksgiving preparations

Vital Signs: Make food safety an important part of your Thanksgiving preparations

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Thanksgiving is a time for family and friends to come together to visit and share a good meal. However, many things are different this year.

Gathering indoors with multiple households this year is not recommended, as it increases the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. We encourage you to celebrate Thanksgiving with just your household and to find ways to engage with loved ones virtually or outdoors (6 feet apart, with masks on).

Another risk to any gathering that includes a big meal is “food poisoning.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne illnesses affect tens of millions of people and kill thousands of people in the United States each year. With statistics like these, handling and serving safe food can seem daunting, but it can be done. Here are some simple steps you can take to ensure that you’re serving safe foods to your loved ones this holiday season:

Use a food thermometerIs your food thermometer working properly? Fill a clear container with 60% ice and 40% water and insert the metal probe into the water. Your thermometer should read 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shop smartBuy a digital thermometer so you can check food temperatures. This is one of the most important things you can do while cooking, cooling and before serving food. A thermometer would make a great stocking stuffer.

When shopping, start in the middle aisles of the store, where non refrigerated items are located. Add refrigerated and frozen foods to your cart last. Use ice blocks or packs and insulated bags to help keep your foods cold while driving home. Disinfect reusable bags and ice packs on a regular basis.

Check expiration dates in the grocery store and in your pantry.

Thaw foods in the refrigerator, under running water, or in the microwave.

Beware of cross-contaminationMake sure all cabinets, cutting boards, pans, thermometers and utensils are properly cleaned before use.

Do not store raw meats over ready-to-eat foods. Keep raw meats at the bottom of the refrigerator.

Don’t stack different types of meat on top of each other. For example, don’t place chicken over ground beef.

Keep cold foods cold, hot foods hotKeep refrigerated foods cold at 41°F or lower. After meeting the required cooking temperature (poultry is 165 F), continue to keep cooked foods hot at 135°F.

Foods left at room temperature for too long can allow bacteria to multiply and produce toxins causing you or your guests to get sick (if the temperature is held above 41°F and below 135°F — also known as the “temperature danger zone”).

Consider the health of the cookFeeling under the weather? If you’ve experienced vomiting, diarrhea, fever, sore throat, jaundice (yellowing of the eyes) or COVID symptoms in the past two days, let someone else prepare the food. One out of five foodborne illnesses can be attributed to individuals cooking while they’re sick.

Although you may start feeling better, you still may be spreading germs that can get into your food. Always wash your hands before beginning any food preparation. Hands can carry bacteria and viruses that can be transmitted through preparing foods.

Cooking foods in advance Start the cooling process once the thermometer reads 135°F. Put food in shallow containers so they cool faster. Use the freezer, ice baths or refrigerator to cool food down more quickly.

Properly cooled foods should reach a temperature of 70°F within two hours of starting the process. Continue to cool foods from 70°F to 41°F within the next four hours. Check food temperatures every hour to ensure your food is cooling properly within the required time frames.

If you reheat leftovers the next day, make sure they reach a temperature of 165°F. This will destroy certain bacteria that can grow on foods while in the danger zone (41 to 135°F).

Serving safe food will make your holiday season even more enjoyable! For more information about food safety, visit

Eric S. Myers is environmental health supervisor for the Thomas Jefferson Health District.

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