Published on 11/09/06

Taking holiday dinner traveling? Keep it safe

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

Covered-dish meals offer the best of the fall and winter holidays for many communities, large groups and families. People tend to bring only their best foods to share with their friends and kin.

But, for safety's sake, you need to do more than just "cover" your dishes.

"Bacteria are everywhere. But a few types especially like to crash parties," said Judy Harrison, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension foods specialist.

Some of the culprits, she said, are Salmonella, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Listeria monocytogenes. If they lurk in your food, you won't be able to tell it.

"You can't smell or taste these bacteria in food," Harrison said. "The only way to keep them from ruining your party is to make a point of preparing and handling food safely."

What to do

Harrison offers the following tips for keeping your covered dishes free from bacteria.

Wash your hands before and after handling food. Keep your kitchen, dishes and utensils clean, too. And always serve food on clean plates.

On the buffet table, keep hot foods hot (140 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer) with chafing dishes, crock pots or warming trays. Keep cold foods 40 degrees or colder by nesting dishes in bowls of ice. Or use small serving bowls and replace them often.

Keep track of how long foods have been on the buffet table. "Never let foods stay in the temperature danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees for more than two hours," Harrison said.

Turkey tips

If you're taking the turkey, be especially careful.

"To transport an unstuffed cooked turkey," Harrison said, "take it out of the oven, immediately wrap it in foil and put it straight into the cooler. Then put it into the warmest spot in the car."

To be safe, the turkey must stay at 140 degrees or warmer or be eaten within two hours. If you can't keep it that warm, slice it and cool it immediately. Then keep it at 40 degrees or colder in a cooler with ice.

Never try to transport a cooked, stuffed turkey.

"It's best to cook the stuffing outside of the turkey," Harrison said. "If you must have a stuffed turkey, then make sure that it's lightly stuffed so the stuffing will reach ... at least 165 degrees. Remove the stuffing immediately after cooking, and transport it in a dish, not in the turkey."

No cheating

Don't partially cook a turkey ahead of time and then finish it before the meal, either. It can't be safely done.

Be sure you cook the turkey in an oven set no lower than 325 degrees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says a whole turkey is safe cooked to at least 165 degrees throughout the bird. However, cooking a turkey to 180 degrees will make it more acceptable and palatable.

Check the internal temperature with a food thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

You can cook the turkey a day ahead, Harrison said, but not if you want to take it whole. You can't safely cool and then reheat a whole cooked turkey.

If you must cook a day ahead, go ahead and carve it. Divide it into small, shallow containers so it will cool fast and evenly and reheat quickly at meal time.

After the meal, throw out any foods that sat for more than two hours on the buffet table, she said. Other leftovers are safe in the fridge for three to four days. They're safe indefinitely in the freezer. But most will taste best if you eat them within four months. Always reheat leftovers to 165 degrees.

If you have to travel a long way, leave the food. "Don't try to carry a feast across the country," Harrison said. "Look for new traditions when you get there."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.