Holiday Entertaining: Easy Food Preparation and Safety

Here is some advice from Andrew Schloss, CCP,, to help you avoid the pitfalls of holiday entertaining:

Most everyone who loves to cook is eventually pressured, either from external or internal forces, into making a holiday dinner. Although this can begin innocently enough as a way of sharing one’s talents and good feelings with friends and family, it can easily become overwhelming. No one can pinpoint the exact moment at which an evening of gracious entertaining becomes a sentence of dinner with no parole, but it has happened to all of us.

  • Start with a menu and a detailed cooking plan. Plan a combination of types of foods – some fresh, some prepared. Serve some items cold and others heated. Think about what can be cooked ahead of time and what ingredients will be hard to purchase or store. Decide mostly on tried-and-true dishes that are quick and easy, and if you want to make a grand impression, go for it once in the meal and once only, rather than trying for fireworks at every course.
  • Don’t try to do everything yourself. Unless you live with a staff of four in your kitchen, you will probably need some outside help, even for a dinner party with as few as, say, a dozen people. Help can be as simple as having guests cook and bring a dish or deciding that you will buy the dessert rather than prepare it yourself.
  • The best thing you can do is to let your pantry be your prep crew. Staple items like canned beans, tomatoes, beets, carrots, potatoes, seafood and broth give you a head start and provide you with cooked ingredients that only need to be combined and warmed. They are essential for last minute additions to a menu, and they are a perfect way to save time and labor without sacrificing quality.

Make Food Safety an Essential Ingredient in Holiday Entertaining
- Courtesy of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

If you are an occasional cook whose idea of food preparation is cranking up the microwave, you may need a refresher course on food safety fundamentals if you plan to entertain a crowd this holiday season. According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, feeding large groups over extended periods of time increases the need to focus on food safety essentials, including careful preparation, serving and storage.

As always, food safety means cleanliness, proper temperature control, thorough cooking, and separation of raw and cooked foods to prevent cross-contamination. Here are some suggestions to help keep holiday entertaining – and indeed, every meal – a safe and pleasant experience for party-givers and party-goers alike.

Cleanliness counts. Make sure everything that comes in contact with food is as clean as possible. Start with clean hands because they are the most frequently used utensil in the kitchen and can spread bacteria very quickly. A clean kitchen also calls for sanitizing work surfaces and cutting boards, laundering dish cloths and towels frequently, cleaning dishes and utensils thoroughly, and soaking sponges in a mild bleach solution between uses.

Store safely. Plan ahead before you load up at the grocery store so you will be sure to have adequate storage space in the refrigerator and freezer for all perishable items. This may be a good time to clean out and throw away any food that is past its prime, for the sake of both space and safety. Keep cold foods cold -- 40° F or less in the refrigerator and 0° F or less in the freezer. Keep a thermometer in each area and remember to check it often.

Storage is also important after the meal or party. When refrigerating leftovers, cool them as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of bacterial growth. Large quantities should be divided into smaller portions and stored in several small or shallow containers.

Cook it correctly. The cooking process enhances the flavor of food, but its main function is to kill disease-causing micro-organisms. To do this job effectively, the internal temperature of the food must reach the recommended level as shown on an instant-read thermometer: for beef – at least 150° F; pork – 160° F; and poultry – 165° F. Cook ground meats until there is no pink left and the internal temperature reaches 160° F. Reheat leftovers to at least 165° F to kill bacteria that might have multiplied in the cooling process.

Meat, poultry, fish, egg dishes and casseroles should be cooked thoroughly in one operation. Do not cook for only part of the correct amount of time and plan to complete the cooking process later.

Do not cross contaminate. Keep raw and cooked foods and their juices separate at all times. Be sure that raw meats do not drip on other foods in the grocery basket, in grocery bags or in the refrigerator. Marinate meats on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to keep juices from spilling on other foods and do not reuse the marinade. Never use the same plate or utensil for cooked food that was used to prepare or transport the raw product.

Serve safely. Don’t leave perishable foods at room temperature for more than two hours. Instead of putting large quantities of food out on a buffet table all at one time, offer the food in small serving dishes and replenish them frequently. To keep hot foods hot, consider using a chafing dish or heated serving unit. For cold foods, try nesting dishes in bowls of ice.

Here is one more tip to help ensure holiday food safety: When in doubt, throw it out – and do not taste the questionable food before discarding it.


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