At Home: Food Safety IQ

Do you always bring gravy to a boil before serving it? And how long, really, can perishable food safely sit out before harmful bacteria starts to grow? Granted, you might think more about what veggie dish the kids will eat than how you’re going to prepare, serve and store the actual food. But providing a healthy and enjoyable meal starts with proper food handling.
Consider the following scenarios and see how ready you are to dice, slice and serve the holiday meals.

It’s time to chop the celery and onion for the stuffing. You pull out your favorite cutting board, the nonporous plastic one you’ve used for several years.
Check the cutting board for wear. Excessively worn cutting boards, including plastic and nonporous acrylic one, should be replaced. Bacteria can grow in hard-to-clean grooves and cracks. And while you’re at it, pull out a second cutting board for raw meat and poultry. Experts recommend using one cutting board for raw meat products and another for produce. Even then, be sure to wash cutting boards in hot, soapy water between uses.

Aunt Betty and Uncle Joe enjoy a spirited glass of eggnog. Even though it seems a little early in the season, you quickly whip up a batch. Are you risking salmonella infection?
It depends on the egg source. Pasteurized eggs, found in the grocer’s refrigerated section, can be substituted for regular eggs in recipes where the eggs are not cooked, such as in eggnog, mousse, Hollandaise sauce and Caesar salad dressing. And while you’re preparing drinks, check the apple cider container to be sure it’s labeled as pasteurized.

Uh oh. The turkey is frozen, and you’re not sure it will thaw in time. So you set it on the counter or run hot water over it to thaw it more quickly.
Neither are safe options. To thaw food in the refrigerator, plan on 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of frozen food. In a pinch you can immerse a wrapped frozen turkey in cold water, breast side down. Change the water every 30 minutes.

It’s time to put the turkey in the oven. But first you wash it to get rid of as much “bad stuff” as you can.
Experts don’t recommend washing raw poultry, meat or seafood before cooking. Although washing may get rid of some pathogens, it also allows them to spread. Cooking to a safe internal temperature destroys any bacteria that may be present. Remember, however, to wash your hands with hot, soapy water before, in between and after preparing these foods.

Dinner is done, and it’s time to start cleaning up. You pull out the kitchen sponge to wipe the counters and wash the dishes.
Grab a commercial kitchen cleaning product or homemade cleaning solution of 1 to 2 teaspoons chlorine bleach to every quart of water for disinfecting. And since sponges stay wet longer, and their porous quality attracts bacteria, experts recommend using a thinner dishrag that can dry between uses. For countertops, a paper towel that can be thrown away might be the best option.

After dessert, everyone moves into the family room. Since the food is still hot, you wait for it to cool before putting it in the refrigerator.
You’re asking for trouble. It used to be that placing hot foods in the refrigerator could lower the overall temperature of the fridge, causing food to spoil. But that’s no longer the case. There is no need to wait, and it’s best to promptly refrigerate foods.

Someone is hankering for leftovers. You make a plate and stick it in the microwave to reheat. When you take it out it feels hot, so it’s ready, right?
Not so fast. Leftovers should be reheated to 165°F. Since microwaves often cook food unevenly, bacteria can survive in colder spots. To be sure food is evenly heated, turn the dish several times while reheating. Use a food thermometer to test the food in more than one area to verify its temperature throughout.

Don’t take a chance on giving your family — or holiday guests — an uninvited case of food poisoning. Follow the four C’s of safe food handling: clean, cook, combat cross-contamination and chill.

Food Safety Tips and Information

American Dietetic Association —
Food Safety and Inspection Service —
Nemours Foundation KidsHealth —
U.S.D.A. Meat and Poultry Hotline — 800-535-4555 or 888-674-6854
U.S. FDA Food Information Line — 888-SAFE-FOOD;
These resources provided the factual information used in the article and the online quiz.

To find out your food safety I.Q., visit and take the online quiz.

Do you know the right answer to the following?
1. What is the shortest time you can spend washing your hands with hot, soapy water to be effective?
• 10 seconds
• 15 seconds
• 20 seconds
• 25 seconds
If you guessed 20 seconds, you’re right.

2. A whole turkey needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of at least:
• 145°F
• 165°F
• 170°F
• 180°F
Whole poultry should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 180° F. While pop-up timers generally are reliable within 1 to 2 degrees, it’s best to check using a food thermometer.

3. At room temperature, harmful bacteria in food can double in number every:
• 10 to 20 minutes
• 30 to 40 minutes
• 60 to 90 minutes
• 2 hours
The correct answer is 30 to 40 minutes. The more bacteria there are, the greater the chance you could become sick.

4. Leftovers and prepared food should be put in the refrigerator or freezer within:
• 1 hour
• 2 hours
• 3 hours
• It’s OK for food to sit out if it’s cooked
While it’s best to refrigerate food to keep harmful bacteria from multiplying, it needs to be chilled within two hours. Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling, and don’t pack the refrigerator too full. The cold air needs to circulate to keep food safe. While you’re at it, check to be sure the refrigerator is no warmer than 40°F.

5. Leftover turkey should be eaten or frozen within:
• 1-2 days
• 3-4 days
• 5-7 days
• Leftover turkey? Not at my house.
Cooked turkey, along with most other leftovers, can keep safely in the refrigerator for three or four days. It also can be frozen for nine months to a year in a freezer set at or below 0°F. For a chart of how long to keep different leftovers in the refrigerator, visit

Crickett Gibbons is editor of Carolina Parent, a sister publication of Charlotte Parent.