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Houston Department of Health and Human Services > Food Inspection and Safety (Consumer Health) > Food Safety Tips > Festive Eating and Food Safety  

Festive Eating and Food Safety

It is that time of the year and with the holidays comes festive eating. Therefore, before you are shopping for all the goodies, here are some things you will need to remember.

Food safety is important year around, but during the holidays it becomes increasingly important. That is mainly due to preparation of larger meals, improper storage of foods at room temperature and overloading the refrigerators. Follow these simple guidelines to have a happy holiday season.

Plan your meals: Choose foods that can be served safely under planned activities. Make sure that you have chafing dishes, warming trays or other equipment to keep hot foods at 140F or higher. Keep cold foods nested in bowls of ice to maintain them at 41F or below. If you can't store them hot or cold, don't serve. When shopping, keep grocery shopping on your list as the last task, so you can take the food items straight into the refrigerator for proper storage.

Good sanitation: Poor sanitation in the kitchen and storage space, such as refrigerators can cause more problems as you are preparing larger amount of foods.

Cross-contamination: Any surface that food comes in contact with is a source of contamination. Make sure that cooking utensils, dishes, cutting boards and your hands are thoroughly washed between tasks. For example, wash the cutting board, knives and your hands after slicing the turkey but before preparing salad on the same surface. When buying raw meat and poultry, wrap in a plastic bag so meat juices don't drip on other foods in the shopping cart.

Safe temperatures: Store foods in the refrigerator to ensure temperature below 41F. Keep a thermometer in sight to periodically check the safe temperature. Do not overload the refrigerator at one time. Stock what you need or buy fresh items as needed.

Sending gifts of food: Send items in the mail that are safe. Some of the items that are safe to be shipped are: jams and preserves, dried fruits, nuts and candies, dry-cured country style hams, beef jerkey, hard salami and other low-moisture meat products, processed cheese products, cookies and of course everyones favorite fruit cakes.

Preparing meals for the holidays:

Thawing. The best way to thaw is in the refrigerator. When thawing large amounts, allow 24 hours per five pounds. So if you have a 25-pound turkey, it may take five days in the refrigerator. If you are in a hurry, thaw it in the microwave oven. Be sure to cook it immediately if food is thawed in the microwave.

Cooking: Avoiding cross-contamination, cook all your products at the proper temperatures. The best way to check turkey temperatures is to use a meat thermometer. Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat without touching the bones. When you reach 180F or above, it is done. The juices will run clear, not pink when the turkey is done. Cook other products to at least 145F to ensure food safety. Stuffing must be cooked to at least 165F.

Serving: Once cooked, please serve meals within two hours for holiday fun. Do not leave cooked meals at room temperatures for more than two hours.

Leftovers: Put all leftovers in small covered containers so they cool quickly when placed in the refrigerator or freezer. If you store it in the refrigerator, use it within 3 to 4 days. Freezing will allow you more days (up to thirty days) to use the leftovers. Stuffing and gravy will only last 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator.

Other safety tips

Cookie dough: If you have raw eggs in the cookie dough, keep your hands out of it. Do not let your temptation to dip into cookie dough ruin your holidays. Raw eggs can be dangerous for the young children and elderly.

Pies: Custard-type pies, including homemade pumpkin pie, need to be refrigerated. If you run out of space in the refrigerator; rearrange items so that the pies will fit inside the refrigerator. Pies at room temperature can grow dangerous bacteria.

Egg nog: The best way to serve egg nog is to buy it in carton. The store sold product is pasteurized and is safe. If you make your own egg nog, use only pasteurized eggs and not raw eggs.

Buffets: If you are serving meals in a buffet style, avoid adding fresh foods to foods that have been setting out. Put foods on ice or over a heat source to keep them out of the temperature "danger zone".


Food and fun are packed into holiday celebrations for many people during thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. How many times after a gathering have you felt a little "out-of-sorts" and blamed it on eating too much? While overindulging can cause an upset stomach, so can eating food that was improperly handled. Keep the fun and cheer in your festivities by following these food-safety tips to help prevent foodborne illness.

For other food safety related information, please contact the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, Bureau of Consumer Health Services at 713-794-9200.

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