A family enjoying a holiday meal with a person carving a holiday roast

Food poisoning can strike at any time of the year. But during the holiday season, when we tend to prepare larger meals over longer stretches of time, it’s easy to become careless about food and kitchen safety.

Slip-ups in food handling, preparation, and cook­ing can lead to a botched favorite dish—or worse, serious illness.

The Centers for Disease Con­trol and Prevention estimates that each year, 1 in 6 Americans has a bout of food poisoning, often caused by foodborne bacteria such as salmonella, cam­pylobacter, and E. coli.

To stop those bacteria from crashing your holiday meals, follow these simple kitchen commandments.

Go to Consumer Reports' 2019 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.

Before You Cook

Separate poultry and meat from other food. Fewer than 1 in 5 shoppers use plastic bags (provided by many supermarket meat departments) to keep meat juices from contaminating other items in their cart, according to a 2014 Kansas State University study.

More on Holiday Cooking

2018 study published in the Journal of Food Protection found that 61 percent of poultry packages had meat juice on their outside surfaces, which was often transferred to shoppers' hands, grocery bags, and kitchens—in addition to other food items in their carts.

Researchers from Kansas State University recommend using the bags for raw poultry and meat while you're shopping and when storing the products in the fridge.

Avoid the thawing "danger zone." The safest way to thaw frozen meat or poultry is to put it in the refrigerator, not on a counter. Counter-thawed food can enter that dangerous zone between 40° F and 140° F, where bacteria multiply rapidly. If you’re crunched for time, you can defrost meat in a microwave, but cook it immediately afterward because some areas may have already started to cook.

Prep vegetables properly. Bac­teria can also contaminate raw vegetables. Scrub hard veggies, such as root veg­e­tables, under cold water with a vegetable brush. Salad greens might contain pesticide residue; always rinse them well under running water. (And note that Consumer Reports testing found the bacteria listeria in some raw leafy greens products; see how to protect yourself.)

Never use soap on vegetables, because it might contain ingredients that are harmful if ingested. And know that washing will not remove most foodborne bacteria from produce—thorough cooking is the most effective way to do this. 

Don't rinse your meat. There’s no culinary or cleanliness benefit to doing this, and it could splash bacteria all over your sink, your countertops, and nearby utensils or dishes.

While You're Cooking

Take care with cutting boards. Avoid bacterial cross-contamination by using designated cutting boards for different kinds of food—raw produce, raw meat, poultry, and seafood. (Using plastic boards in different colors makes it easier to distinguish which is which.) Deep scratches or grooves are a haven for bacteria. When such damage makes a board hard to clean, throw it away.

Wash your hands often. Think of your hands as cooking utensils. Wash them well for 20 seconds with hot soapy water every time you handle raw meat, poultry, and seafood. Scrub them again between food prep and cleanup to avoid spreading bacteria to other areas of your kitchen and home. 

After the Meal

Store leftovers immediately. Bacteria can grow in cooked food, so hot dishes that aren’t being discarded should be refrigerated within 2 hours of cooking to prevent food poisoning. 

When in doubt, throw it out. Don't taste food that looks or smells questionable. Ever. 

Know when the party's over. Leftovers should be consumed within three to four days. After that, all bets are off. 

A Healthier Holiday Feast

Following food safety guidelines is essential in making sure your holiday meal is as safe as it can be. Equally important to the health of your guests is using quality ingredients. Here's what to consider when shopping.

Turkey. Look for a bird with a “USDA organic” or “no antibiotics/USDA Process Verified” label. And since raw turkey may carry salmonella, be sure to cook it to a safe temperature of 165° F to kill any bacteria that may be present.   

Other types of meat. Look for cuts that are lean, which is defined as less than 10 grams of total fat, no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. The label can provide clues. For example, cuts that include the word “round” are the lowest in fat, with “loin” a close second.

Packaged stuffing. These mixes can vary in nutrition, especially in fat and sodium, so read food labels.

Cranberry sauce. Consider skipping the canned, jellied stuff. Just a quarter-cup can have 110 calories—almost all from sugars, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup. You can find organic versions that don’t have HFCS, but they may contain other sugars. But it's easy to make your own cranberry sauce.

Pumpkin pie. Frozen pies can be full of HFCS and palm oil. And don’t be fooled by labels that make a product sound homemade. For instance, Sara Lee’s Oven Fresh Pumpkin Pie may have come “fresh” from an oven at some point, but it’s still a processed, frozen product.

Bake the Safe Way

The kitchen is one of the busiest hubs in the house, but it also harbors hidden dangers. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' experts explain how you can stay safe from E. coli and other contaminants.