We’re all excited to celebrate the holidays and reunite with family and friends after many of us cancelled last year’s Christmas gatherings to stay safe from COVID-19.

While we’re understandably focused on the pandemic, we also shouldn’t forget to keep food safety a top priority as we prepare holiday meals.

Each year, 1 in 6 Americans get sick from food-borne illness, 128,000 people are hospitalized and, tragically, more than 3,000 people die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“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,” 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.

Unfortunately, Shaw says the actual number of food-borne illness cases 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 with COVID-19 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 (to skip the doctor’s office.)”

Research also shows that people are also less likely to report getting sick from meals prepared at home, Shaw says. And Americans are cooking more at home during the pandemic.

“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 best to follow safe food-handling practices at home 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 food-safe temperatures for meat and poultry from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

You can also contact the food safety experts at USDA’s Meat and Poultry hotline toll-free 1-888-MPHotline. The hotline is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time.

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