Let the celebrating begin! During this time of year, our social calendars fill with meals with friends and family at favorite restaurants and at our own homes. We know that restaurants get a health inspection every year, but what about our own kitchen? Or the Christmas party at the boss’s house?
One of the tried-and-true holiday favorites is a “drop in.” This is where the host puts out a spread of food and guests literally drop in as their schedule permits. However, this type of food service where foods are left out for long periods leaves the door open for uninvited guests — bacteria that cause foodborne illness. As the USDA website points out, festive times for giving and sharing should not include sharing of foodborne illnesses.
Foods should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours. Keep track of how long foods have been sitting on the buffet table and discard anything there two hours or more. Let me repeat that: two hours. That is the time limit on any food. That means that you should think twice about eating at the holiday party that started at 4pm but you didn’t show up to until 8pm, unless you know that the food has been replaced.
If you're planning a buffet at home and are not sure how quickly the food will be eaten, keep buffet portions small. Prepare a number of small platters and dishes ahead of time. Store cold back-up dishes in the refrigerator or keep hot dishes in the oven set at 200° prior to serving. This way, your late-arriving guests can enjoy the same appetizing and safe food arrangements as the early arrivals.
Some of the worst offenders for bacteria are foods and desserts that contain dairy products. Cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from multiplying and having a bacteria party. So it is important to keep those foods refrigerated until served, especially like some of our favorite Christmas pies, cakes with whipped cream or cream cheese frostings, and other pudding or cream-based desserts.
If you are like me, you love the offer of leftovers. It’s a better present than that Christmas sweater that is wrapped under the tree. Leftovers are like food memories – you get to enjoy them again later. However, be sure to refrigerate leftovers immediately after you arrive home (remember the 2 hour rule because that applies to the drive home as well).
Leftovers should be eaten within 3 or 4 days unless frozen. If you do freeze leftovers, defrost them safely. If you are a planner and can get them out of the freezer ahead of time, defrosting in the refrigerator is the safest way. However, if you are scrambling due to a sudden visit from the in-laws or neighbors, defrosting in cold water, changing the water every half-hour to keep the water cold, is also effective. Do not defrost foods at room temperature – bacteria love room temperatures. You can, of course, defrost frozen items in the microwave but be sure to maintain its temperature once it is heated all the way through.
So enjoy the holiday feasts and festivities safely and let the celebrating (and the eating) begin!