The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

  • Published
  • By Will Harding
  • 17th Training Wing Safety Office
Old Man Winter is knocking at my door, bringing the holiday season with him. My thoughts are turning to those special meals you only get this time of year, decorating my home, and visiting family and friends.  

Some people set out to make holiday travel plans of where they'll go and how they'll get there, but give no thought to potential problems they could encounter. Those are accidents looking for places to happen. Unfortunately, many people leave safety out of the equation until it's too late.  

Wouldn't it be great to have all the fun you can handle and be safe, too? You bet it would! When it comes to safety, personal experience is a harsh teacher. With a little imagination and the use of "what if ..." scenarios, you can plan a safe, fun holiday. Consider all the potential hazards or problems you could encounter -- slippery roads, severe weather, drunk drivers and many others. 

When I'm traveling, I always ensure my family is well-rested. Before leaving, we plan our rest and meal breaks. When driving, you don't want to overextend yourself. Good planning will take into account setting aside enough time to get to your destination without rushing or skipping rest and meal breaks that are essential for mind and body. It's never wise to push yourself to the point of exhaustion, because driving fatigued is as dangerous as driving drunk. Your judgment is just as impaired as it would be with alcohol; your vision blurs and your reactions slow. 

If traveling during the holidays is not your thing, maybe playing host for parties in your home is. The holiday season is when many home kitchens work overtime. Family and friends gather, schedules become even more hectic, and many hands want to help. It's no wonder food safety practices are likely to fall by the wayside. Many of our holiday guests are at greater risk for food-borne illness: the elderly, children and anyone with a weakened immune system or chronic illness, such as heart disease, diabetes or HIV. No one wants to spoil a holiday celebration with a food-borne illness. Keep your family and friends safe with the following food safety strategies.  

Check your refrigerator temperature, using a thermometer to ensure it holds foods safely -- between 37 and 40 degrees F. Warmer temperatures allow harmful bacteria to thrive and food to spoil. If you'll be cooking for a crowd and are short on space, fill a cooler or two with ice for the extra items. Thaw frozen meat and poultry safely in the refrigerator or under cold water in the sink. If you're really pressed for time, microwave thawing is fastest, but make sure you finish cooking immediately after thawing. Defrosting any perishable food on the counter is just asking for trouble. Bacteria can thrive in the outer portions of the food before the inside thaws. 

Wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after handling food, as well as after using the toilet, diapering children, blowing your nose or playing with pets. 

To prevent cross-contamination, keep raw meat and poultry and their drippings separate from other foods; also wash counters, cutting boards and knives before, during and after food preparation. Using paper towels to wipe up meat and poultry drippings is the safest way to clean up, since dishcloths and sponges soak up and spread bacteria throughout the kitchen. Clean up using a sanitizing solution of one teaspoon bleach in one quart of water. Spray on countertops, kitchen tables and refrigerator door handles -- the dirtiest spot in a busy kitchen. 

When roasting a turkey in the oven, make sure it's set no lower than 325 degrees F. Avoid shortcut cooking methods that call for cooking the bird overnight at a lower temperature. You're only asking for trouble. 

Always use a meat thermometer to ensure safety and quality. The turkey is cooked to perfection when the thermometer inserted into the inner thigh, but not touching bone, reads 180 degrees, the breast reads 170 degrees, and the juices run clear. Cooking dressing in a separate casserole dish is safest, but if you prefer to stuff your holiday bird, fill the cavity loosely and make sure the center of the stuffing reaches 165 degrees. 

The key to food safety is keeping cold foods cold, below 40 degrees, and hot foods hot, above 140 degrees. Use hot plates, chafing dishes, and crockpots to keep hot holiday buffet food at a safe temperature. Put out small quantities of perishable foods, such as meat, cheese and dips, and refill as needed, or keep cold foods chilled by nesting dishes in bowls of ice. 

Finally, there always seems to be leftovers, no matter how many guests you had -- turkey for sandwiches, dressing and cranberry sauce. To safely reuse leftovers, make sure they are refrigerated or frozen within two hours of serving. Remove the turkey meat from the carcass and refrigerate in small, shallow, covered containers that protect quality and allow for rapid cooling. 

Refrigerated leftovers must be consumed within a few days. Use your freezer for longer storage. Leftovers should be reheated to 165 degrees, or until hot and steaming. Leftover gravy must be brought to a rolling boil before serving. 

By following these simple steps, you and your family can have a happy and safe holiday season.