As the holidays approach, you are likely preparing larger meals in celebration with your family. In certain conditions, harmful bacteria can grow in food and make you and your loved ones sick. Here are some tips to help you keep you, your food, family, and friends safe this holiday season.

  1. Thaw meats safely. Safely thaw frozen meats and poultry (like chicken and turkey) in the refrigerator, microwave, or a cool water bath – never on the countertop. If you choose the refrigerator, make sure the meat is covered in a dish. This method prevents so juices from leaking onto other food items. If you choose the microwave method, cook the meat immediately. If you thaw your meat in a cool water bath, make sure you change the water every 30 minutes to decrease the risk of harmful bacteria growth and spread.
  2. Keep it clean. Anyone who helps with meal prep should wash their hands often in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Hand washing is especially important after using the restroom, sneezing or coughing, touching uncleaned items, and handling raw animal products like meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. It will feel like a lot of hand washing, but it’s worth it to keep everyone safe. Washing your produce is important to clean off any dirt or bacteria that might be on the surface. Scrub firm fruits and vegetables, like apples and potatoes, with a vegetable brush under cool running water. Gently rub softer produce, like leafy greens, with your hands instead of a brush. Make sure to keep your kitchen surfaces clean. Wash all countertops, drawer pulls, and kitchen tools with hot, soapy water. When prepping your food, use at least two different cutting boards to prevent cross-contamination; set one aside for meats and one for ready-to-eat foods and produce. Make sure to use a clean knife.
  3. Watch the clock and check food temperatures. As soon as you get your food off the stove or out of the refrigerator to put on the table, check the time. After two hours of sitting out, harmful bacteria can quickly grow and increase the risk of food-borne illness. For best food safety practices, refrigerate foods within two hours below 40°F. A good rule of thumb is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Does simply touching the outside of the container count as monitoring temperature? Nope! The best way to check the temperature is to use a food thermometer. Stick a food thermometer in the thickest part of the food item to make sure it is safe to eat. The goal is to keep food out of the “Danger Zone” (40°F to 140°F), the perfect temperature range for bacteria growth. 
  4. Make the most of your leftovers. Store leftovers in air-tight containers in the refrigerator so you can enjoy them over the next few days. Different foods have different storage lives, but generally, leftovers should be eaten within two to five days. However, when in doubt, throw it out. If it is only day two, but your turkey looks or smells a little weird, please do not eat it. Reheat leftovers to an internal temperature of 165°F to kill any harmful bacteria that may have snuck in there. 

For a quick reminder of safe food temperatures, print out this card, and keep it on your fridge!

If you use recipes from Second Harvest, here’s a fun fact: our recipe sheets are designed to help remind you to practice food safety by adding tips throughout the ingredients list and directions to keep you safe. Food safety instructions are italicized and in yellow text, so they stand out. 


For more information about food safety, visit the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website ( or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website (