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Holiday meals require proper planning

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Thanksgiving is the start of the holiday season; when friends, family and loved ones gather to have one great meal after another. 

Food is as much a part of holiday gatherings as football, candles and carols.  Don't let this be the holiday season that you skimp on good food safety habits that can either make or break your festivities.  Food safety includes proper planning, safe shopping, working in the kitchen and wrapping up or discarding leftovers.  It's important to make sure your kitchen is equipped with what you need for safe food handling, including two cutting boards (one for raw meats and seafood and the other for ready-to-eat foods), a food thermometer, shallow containers for storage, paper towels and soap. 

Foods should be stored in a refrigerator at 40°F or below or in the freezer at 0°F or below.  Check the temperature of both the refrigerator and freezer with a refrigerator thermometer. 

During your shopping trip ensure you keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from ready-to-eat foods like fruit, vegetables and bread.  Don't purchase bruised or damaged produce or canned goods that are dented, leaking, bulging or rusted, as these may become breeding grounds for harmful bacteria.  Purchase cold foods last and bring foods directly home from the grocery store.  Remember to always refrigerate perishable foods, such as raw meat or poultry, within two hours.  Don't forget to check expiration dates. Remember the more stops between the store and home, the more time bacteria will have to have a party in your food.

Ensure you have enough room for your turkey; overcrowding your freezer or fridge can actually raise temperatures dangerously high and spoil your food and ruin your equipment.  Allow enough time to defrost that big frozen bird.  Never defrost meat at room temperature; that's a prime opportunity for bacteria to grow.  The best way to defrost a turkey is in the refrigerator; just allow enough defrost time per pound of turkey. 

In a holiday kitchen filled with family and friends, all hands may be on deck, but are those hands clean?  Make sure everyone washes their hands thoroughly with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling food. When baking delicious holiday treats, remember that no one should eat raw cookie dough or brownie batter containing raw eggs.  Additionally, remember to keep raw foods separate from ready-to-eat food items during food preparation. 

As you eat and visit with family and friends, keep in mind how long the food on the table has been sitting out unrefrigerated.  Remember that you can't tell if a food is unsafe by taste, smell or appearance alone.  Throw away all perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs and casseroles, left at room temperature longer than two hours.  Refrigerate or freeze other leftovers in shallow, air-tight containers and label with an expiration date.  Leftovers should be eaten or discarded within seven days and reheat all leftovers to 165°F.  Never eat expired foods as this could lead to food poisoning.

Remember, as you prepare your holiday meals, keep yourself and your family safe from food-related illness by following these simple tips: 

1. Wash hands and surfaces often. 
2. Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs (including their juices) away from ready-to-eat foods and eating surfaces.
3. Cook foods to the proper temperature. 
4. Refrigerate promptly.
5. Do not leave perishable foods out for more than two hours.
One last tip: Be sure to enjoy your family and friends this holiday season and eat to your heart's content!
Season's greetings and happy holidays!