If you’re hosting a holiday dinner this year, or if you’re bringing a favorite side dish to the festivities, it is only natural to want the meal to turn out as near to perfect as possible.

But as you’re scurrying around the kitchen trying to get the turkey in the oven and the potatoes mashed, don’t skip the basic steps to ensure the holiday meal is safe to eat for your guests, says Marianne Gravely, a food safety expert at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Hotline.

Unfortunately, food safety remains a risk that home cooks shouldn’t ignore, Gravely says. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that more than 128,000 people are hospitalized, and more than 3,000 people die, each year from food-borne illness.

People with a compromised immune system, including young children, pregnant women, seniors and those with a chronic disease, are more at risk of getting sick from food-borne illness.

“About one-third of individuals have a compromised immune system, so most people (around the holidays) will cook for someone who is at highest risk,” Gravely says.

To help ensure a food-safe holiday, Gravely offers the following tips for entertaining family and friends:

How do I safely thaw meat or poultry? The USDA recommends thawing meat or poultry in the refrigerator ahead of time. It takes about one day per 5 pounds to thaw in the fridge.

Is it safe to wash raw poultry or meat? No, it is never safe to wash poultry or meat. Any bacteria on the meat will splash around your sink and kitchen, spreading contamination.

Can I cook the holiday turkey or ham ahead of time? Yes, and cooking ahead of time is a good way to save time and oven space. You should take the cooked turkey or ham off the bone and refrigerate it in shallow containers. Then reheat in a 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes, covering the baking dish with foil.

How do I know when the turkey or meat is ready to eat? Use a food thermometer to ensure the meal has reached a safe temperature. Turkey should cook to 165 degrees, ham to 140 degrees, and beef and pork roasts to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat. Using a food thermometer also helps to avoid overcooking, Gravely says.

How can I travel with a turkey, ham or roast? The easiest way is to travel with cooled turkey or meat, kept at a temperature below 40 degrees by packing it in a cooler full of ice. Then you can reheat the food at your destination. “We don’t recommend traveling with a hot turkey, because it’s hard to keep it at a food-safe temperature,” Gravely says.

How long will cooked leftovers keep? You must refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of cooking. Put the leftovers in shallow containers so they cool quickly. Leftovers can last in the refrigerator for four days or in the freezer for up to six months.

Also, don’t skip the basic steps for safely preparing foods: clean, separate, cook and chill.

Make sure to use clean utensils and cooking surfaces when cooking. Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods. Cook to a food-safe temperature. And chill leftovers within two hours.

In addition, be sure to wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before and after handling food, Gravely says.

And no matter how cold it is outside, don’t store food outside or in a garage, Gravely adds. “Particularly because of animals, and because the garage isn’t consistently 40 degrees or below,” she says.

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is open weekdays during the holiday season from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time. Or visit the AskKaren.gov website for more answers to your food safety questions.

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