Keep your family and friends healthy — and give health care workers a break — by making food safety a priority at home.
Like many of you, I’m beyond excited to celebrate the holidays and reunite with my family after we had to cancel last year’s Christmas gathering to stay safe from COVID-19.
And perhaps more than ever, I want to keep my family healthy this holiday season so we can travel and spend time together again.
So it’s important that we continue to follow the simple, everyday habits that keep us healthy, including frequent hand-washing and safe food handling as we prepare holiday meals.
“We have a lot of vulnerable populations out there, which we’ve seen through COVID-19. So it’s really important to make sure that we are (food) safe and continue helping. That’s why we do it. It’s the little things that matters,” says Angela Shaw, an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach food safety specialist.
If there’s one positive trend during the pandemic, it’s that U.S. cases of food-borne illness dropped in 2020, declining an unprecedented 26% from the previous year, according to the CDC.
Many in the media have credited the improvement to more frequent hand-washing, an important first step to prevent COVID-19 and to keep food safe when cooking and serving.
Unfortunately, Shaw says the actual number of food-borne illnesses was likely underreported in 2020.
She notes that people were less likely to visit a doctor’s office in the early days of the pandemic over fears of getting sick in health care settings.
“Even in a typical year, people don’t go to the hospital (for food poisoning),” Shaw says. “If it was food-borne illness, they kind of suffer for a day, then they feel better the next day. But COVID added more pressure.”
Research also shows that people are less likely to report getting sick from home-cooked meals than from restaurant meals, Shaw says.
Americans are cooking more at home now because of pandemic-related worker shortages and supply chain issues.
“The Thanksgiving holiday, specifically, we know that there’s a lot of (food) temperature abuse and nobody using thermometers. But we don’t really see a big spike in the number of people getting ill after the holidays ... (because) you don’t want to blame yourself or your family,” Shaw says.
As we enter the holiday season — and with health care workers struggling with pandemic burn-out — we should do our part by following safe food-handling practices to keep from getting sick and possibly needing medical treatment.
Shaw says her No. 1 tip for preventing food-borne illness during the holidays is “to keep hot foods hot, and cold foods cold.”
“If you’re planning a big get-together, think about ways that you can use chafing dishes and put burners under them or how you can use a Crock-Pot to keep things warm,” Shaw says. “Or when you think about cold (foods), can you put ice underneath your tray because it’s going to be out of the refrigerator?”
Shaw adds that if you’re serving a large roast, ham or turkey for the holidays, be sure to break down the meat into smaller pieces after cooking, store in small containers and refrigerate or freeze as soon as possible.
Also, if you’re traveling, it’s easier to keep foods cold on ice in a cooler than it is to keep dishes warm with towels or cozies, Shaw says. Once you get to the destination, heat the dish to a food-safe temperature in the microwave or oven, Shaw says.
You can find a list of recommended safe food temperatures and more tips on basic food safety at home at www.fightbac.org.
You can also contact the food safety experts at USDA’s Meat and Poultry hotline toll-free 1-888-MPHotline.
Enjoy a COVID-safe holiday
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that some of our most vulnerable family members are still at risk from COVID-19, says ISU professor Angela Shaw.
Instead of large holiday gatherings, Shaw recommends that you consider hosting smaller celebrations with close family and friends.
Shaw also says her family members are planning to get tested for COVID a few days before they gather.
Test Iowa offers at-home COVID testing kits that you can mail in to get results back within two to three days, Shaw notes. Visit testiowa.com for more info, or contact your doctor.
Most importantly, if you aren’t feeling well or have any COVID symptoms, like a cough, stomachache or fever, be sure to stay home.
“We all want to be together, but we don’t know what that cold is unless you’ve been tested,” Shaw says.