The holiday season is upon us and in full swing. Menus are being planned and long standing family favorite recipes will likely grace the table as family and friends gather to celebrate.

This time of year can be nostalgic for some old family holiday traditions. While some of these traditions are perfectly fine, it may be time to change things up just a bit in an effort to keep foodborne illness at bay, said Barbara Brown, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension food specialist.

“It may be an old habit to thaw a frozen turkey or other meat on the kitchen counter. You may even try to speed up the process by putting the meat in a sink of hot water,” Brown said. “To prevent the spread of harmful bacteria, develop the new tradition of thawing meat in the refrigerator or in a sink filled with cold water. Both of these processes will take a few hours to several days, so plan accordingly.”

If your holiday celebration includes a trip over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house, and you are responsible for bringing part of the meal, be sure the food maintains proper temperatures. Keep cold food cold and hot food hot.

Brown said a cold dish can be packed in a cooler with ice packs to keep it cold while traveling and should maintain a temperature of 40 degrees or less Fahrenheit. Hot dishes can be transported in insulated bags. Covering the dish with foil also will help it retain heat. Maintain hot foods at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above. If the hot temperature cannot be maintained for that amount of time, cool the cooked food and pack it in the ice chest.

“It’s important to pay attention to how much time each of the dishes will be out of the refrigerator or oven. Foods that are outside of these temperature zones for more than two hours should be discarded,” she said. “Once you arrive at your destination, place the foods in the oven to reheat, or store in the refrigerator until mealtime.”

For many families, it simply is not a holiday meal without gravy. While most cooks bring the gravy to a boil before serving it, a boiling temperature may not be a habit when reheating. Do not rock the gravy boat and serve it without first bringing it to a boil for subsequent meals.

Following the meal, most folks simply want to claim the recliner or a section of the couch for a nap, but make sure all the food is put away first. Remember that gravy that was brought to a boil before the meal? If it still is relatively hot, pour it into a shallow dish so it will cool quicker in the refrigerator. Consider leaving the lids off containers until the food has cooled down. The lids can trap heat in the storage container which will make the foods take much longer to cool down. Once the food is cool, put the lids on the containers.

“The holiday season is a wonderful time to bring back those long standing family traditions, but it’s also a great time to create new ones, especially if they help ensure a safe meal,” Brown said.

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