Foodborne illnesses sicken 48 million Americans each year. Keep holiday food safe. | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Winter Holiday Food-Safety Tips

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Family gatherings, office potlucks, holiday buffets, neighborhood cookie exchanges, church suppers, mail-order food deliveries, gifts of home-preserved foods—from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day (and sometimes beyond), Americans go on what seems like a nonstop food binge.

I’ve always loved the special holiday foods and traditions of late fall and winter that have passed down through my family and the local cultures that shaped me. If I can avoid the over-stuffing—always a struggle. Oh, and also the food poisoning.

Heed these statistics

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick with a foodborne illness; 128,000 require hospitalization, and 3,000 die of these illnesses. 


Although summer (picnics, summer camps) is prime time for foodborne illnesses, these diseases spike sharply during the winter holiday season, and noroviruses (“stomach flu”), a family of viruses responsible for half the nation’s foodborne illnesses, are much more common during the winter months.
Get the food-safety facts

Honor your holiday food traditions, but don’t rely on the food-preparation, presentation, and storage practices you grew up with. Food-safety science has come a long way since Grandma’s day. Get current science-based information by checking out the many food-safety fact sheets from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

First, the bare-bones basics

  • Keep it clean Wash food preparation surfaces and hands often.
  • Separate Keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and their juices away from other food. After cutting raw meats, wash cutting board, knife, and counter tops with hot, soapy water.
  • Cook Cook to proper temperatures, checking with a food thermometer.
  • Keep hot foods hot (140 or above) and cold foods cold (40 or below) Discard any food left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours (1 hour if the temperature was above 90 °F).

Beyond the bare bones: links you need

Safe food handbook All the basics; a comprehensive overview.

Safe handling of take-out foods Information on keeping hot foods, cooled foods, and leftovers safe.

Mailing (and receiving) gifts of food A lot of useful information whether you’re on the sending or the receiving end.

Food safety during and after a power outage ‘Cause you know it’s likely to happen sometime this winter.

Home food preservation The go-site for the most current science-based information on all forms of home food preservation.

Thermometers and kitchen appliances Useful information on the roles and use of thermometers, microwaves, slow cookers, and refrigerators for keeping food safe.

Washing food: Not always safe Some counterintuitive information.

Food recalls and alerts Learn about the food-recall process; get the latest updates on recalls.

Food safety question? Ask Karen When you can’t find the answer anywhere else, turn to Karen.

Finally, if you’re wondering whether to open the jar of delicious-looking jelly that just arrived with a note from your Aunt Lucy: Made with love from the “mystery berries” Fred and I found on our camping trip to Lake Umbagog last summer, remember the main food-safety rule of thumb: When in doubt, throw it out.


About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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