Every year, food poisoning is a health issue around the holidays. With new cooks in the kitchen, lots of turkey being cooked, and more people indoors, it's prudent to take practical steps to avoid food-borne illness. Here's what new about food safety—and also some helpful tips on freezing food.
In the past few months, at the behest of public health officials, we’ve gotten accustomed to wearing masks when we go out, washing our hands often, and decontaminating surfaces to help prevent contracting the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Most of us have heeded public health recommendations to get a flu shot and take precautions to avoid other respiratory viruses this winter.
With the holidays approaching, thoughts turn to food and avoiding any foodborne illness, so we can avoid visiting the hospital right now. This is not meant to be scary but simply pragmatic and reasonable.
The CDC estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. You don’t want to find yourself in any of those categories.
I posted a piece about food safety a few years ago; those tips and links to the best scientific advice still prevail. Check it out if you need to refresh your memory on the basics.
What’s new about food safety during a winter pandemic?
With winter weather, people are more likely to rely on curbside pickups from grocery stores. You may be selecting raw or frozen perishable foods you’ve never tried before. If you're not home during delivery or you're not sure how long curbside bags will sit outside a refrigerator or freezer, this may be an important consideration to investigate or that will affect your food choices.
Likewise, some folks may be likely to indulge in outdoor dining (depending on your climate) and you may be more likely to order take-out from restaurants. Consider the restaurant's food safety practices. Do they keep hot foods hot by ensuring insulated cases are properly functioning? Do they keep cold foods cold by keeping enough coolant materials, e.g., gel packs. Avoid food served lukewarm. Germs that cause food poisoning grow quickly when food is in the danger zone, between 40°F and 140°F. Here are food safety tips for ordering from restaurants.
Local farms in many areas have banded together to offer CSA boxes of fall/winter vegetables, fruits, dairy products, even eggs, meats, fish, and poultry. It's great for small businesses and a terrific way to support local agriculture. See a CSA Directory for the United States. But also make sure to ask ahead how the CSA will keep your order (especially meats and poultry) safe until you pick it up/receive and can refrigerate or freeze it. Remember, even organically certified products aren’t safer from a food-safety perspective than conventionally produced products. Food (even fruits and vegetables) can become contaminated at many points along the way from the farm to your table.
More kids and families may be at home and inside during wintertime. New routines and schedules may have people in your household speeding up food handling and preparation to get meals on the table.That haste might result in skirting or forgetting important food-safety practices. Spouses or children who haven’t previously been involved in meal preparation, handling leftovers, etc., may have taken over some of those tasks.They need information about how to do it safely. Above all, wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before preparing food. Also, wash hands after using the toilet as well as after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
Winter typically brings more power outages in the snowy northern regions. Here’s a handy chart on what to do about refrigerated and/or frozen foods during an outage. Note: Don’t defrost food by letting it sit on a countertop or anywhere outside of the fridge. Yes, you can thaw any food by cooking; just remember it will take 50 percent longer to cook than if you’d thawed it first.
Freezing leftovers or extras
If you’re buying extra supplies when prices are low, or making extra-large batches of soups, breads, casseroles, you may have leftovers. Most people know they can freeze leftover soup, cooked dry beans or lentils, cooked rice and other grains, pasta, breads, rolls, and pre-cooked pizza crusts.
But did you know you can also freeze:
Avocados: Peel ripened fruits, wrap tightly in plastic and freeze whole, halved, or cut into chunks.
Raw eggs: Remove whole eggs from shells, gently mix whites and yolks together, freeze in lightly oiled muffin tins. When frozen, remove from tins into appropriate bags or containers and pop back into the freezer.
Bananas: Peel, slice or cut into chunks, place in appropriate containers and freeze.
Milk: Pour into appropriate containers and freeze.
Hard cheese: Just leave in original packaging.
Tomato paste, small amounts of leftover sauces: Plop dollops onto a parchment- or wax paper-lined cookie sheet. Freeze, then store dollops in freezer bags or solid containers until needed.
Raw bread/pizza doughs: If you’re making bread, make a double batch or even more. Let it rise, divide into loaf-sized lumps, and knead each lump well. Wrap loaves for the freezer tightly in freezer bags and freeze. When you’re ready to bake, move a frozen lump into the fridge to thaw overnight. Give it one extra kneading and rising, then bake as usual.
One final tip: When you have a big pot of leftover soup or chili to freeze, the food-safety experts suggest cooling it as rapidly as possible before freezing. Don’t set it still hot or still warm directly into the refrigerator; your soup or other food may enter the danger zone for bacterial contamination before it’s adequately cooled (or even bring the temperature of the entire fridge up to the point where other perishables are in danger.)
One quick way to do it: fill a few food-safe plastic bottles of various sizes with plain water and freeze them solid. You can either set some bottles directly into the pot or pan of food to be cooled, or you can use a taller, thicker bottle as what the restaurant industry calls an “ice paddle,” holding onto the neck and stirring it around until your product has come to room temperature.