I know it’s not the most exciting aspect of nutrition, but it certainly is a very important one. Storage, heating, cooking, cooling, cross-contamination, and leftovers - we’re talking food safety.
Coming into the festive season I thought this topic was particularly relevant. The weather is hot, food is plentiful, and it’s time to get together to celebrate. This combination however, is ideal for the invading bacteria that causes food poisoning.
As we prepare to attend Christmas parties and New Year’s celebrations it is common to prepare food ahead of time. This is a great stress saving technique but it is important to ensure food is stored appropriately. Christmas cakes, biscuits or other purchased packaged items can store safely several weeks, foods such as BBQ or roasting meats, sausage rolls and similar savoury foods, cakes and sweets can also be stored frozen well ahead of time and defrosted in the fridge before they are needed. Remember whole chickens and turkeys can take several days to defrost in the fridge so make sure you allow enough time for them to thaw properly. Most other foods will be fine in an appropriately chilled fridge (around 4 -5 degrees) for 2 -3 days. Keep an eye on used-by dates on products like cream, dips and pates.
If you are hosting a celebration, plan the menu carefully. Consider the number of guests you are catering for, how much they are likely eat and if they will bring anything. The old adage of having too much, rather than not enough is fine unless you can’t store it. Plan where each item on your menu will be stored, ensure you have enough space for everything, and remembering how long it can be stored for.
Space is always an issue when catering for large numbers. A cramped kitchen increases the risk of not only burns and spills but also of cross-contamination. Try to keep your kitchen organised and tidy – too many chefs, increase the risk of injury and contamination. Before getting started ensure your hands, bench space, cutting boards and all other utensils and equipment are clean and dried thoroughly. Keep raw foods separated from foods like salads that won’t be cooked, at all times (in the fridge, in shopping bags, on plates, on cutting boards). Raw meat should be thoroughly wrapped in the fridge and kept on the lower shelves at the right temperature so as juices do not drip onto other foods. It is also a good idea to have several different coloured dish clothes and tea towels for cleaning different areas and spills. These should also be replaced regularly.
If your fridge or freezer is overcrowded it may have trouble staying cool and allowing the air to circulate, which risks the temperature creeping into the ‘danger zone’ (5 degrees – 60 degrees). Cold foods should be kept below 5 degrees, while hot foods above 60 degrees. Hot food can be served lukewarm (below 60 degrees) provided they were previously completely cooked through, heated to steaming and haven’t stayed at lower temperatures for more than 4 hours. For example, once a food item is cooked it can be placed in the oven set to 100 degrees safely for up to 4 hours.
Some common items that can be taken out of the fridge temporarily without risking safety, including beer and soft drink, these can be stored in coolers, ice buckets or even the laundry sink covered with ice; whole fruits, vegetables and ground coffee can be removed temporarily; as well as bottles and jars of jam, pickled items, and sauces. Foods like cooked meat, raw meat, deli and processed meats, dips, pates, seafood, salads especially with cooked rice, pasta, or vegetables, creams and other dairy, need to be kept in the fridge until they are served. Once food has been served it is generally ok to consume within 2 hours, provided it isn’t sitting in the sun. Foods like dips and cheese which tend to be snacked on across the day can be served in small portions and regularly replaced – this looks more appealing and reduces the risk of food poisoning. The safety of food left out for 2 – 4 hour varies depending on the food item. Foods that contain diary or raw eggs, or have been sitting in the sun, will be risky by 4 hours. If the food has been out for 4 hours or more, it’s time to throw it out.
For more food safety advice visit the food safety council website.
Have a happy and healthy Christmas!
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.