Food poisoning can strike 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 national Centers for Disease Con­trol and Prevention estimates that each year, one in six Americans has a bout of food poisoning, often caused by food-borne bacteria such as salmonella, cam­pylobacter, and E. coli. About 1 million cases are associated with a differ­ent bacterium, Clostridium perfringens, which happens to sicken people most often in November and December. To stop those bacteria from crashing your holiday meals, follow these simple kitchen commandments.

Jan. 4, 2018 update: Read “
Avoid Romaine Lettuce for Now, Consumer Reports Says” for details on how this salad green is likely the cause of recent cases of E. coli food poisoning.

Before You Cook

Separate poultry and meat from other food. Fewer than one in five shoppers use plastic bags (provided by many supermarket meat departments) to keep meat juices from contaminating other items in their cart, according to a recent Kansas State University study. The researchers recommend using the bags while 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. (Thanksgiving tip: Allow 24 hours of thawing for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.) Counter-thawed food can enter that dangerous zone between 40° F and 140° F, where bacteria multiply rapidly.

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 bacteria and pesticide residue; always rinse them well under running water. Never use soap on vegetables, because it might contain ingredients that are harmful if ingested. 

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. (See also: "Why You Should Buy an Organic Turkey.")

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.