Holiday Food Safety Tips

Throughout the holiday season, many people enjoy celebrating by entertaining friends and family, throwing parties, and preparing feasts. From the buffet table to the office party, food becomes a focus of celebrations. Although safe food handling (PDF, 195 KB) rules should always apply, extra precautions are necessary during the holidays to prevent foodborne illness. To make sure everyone can enjoy the holiday season, be sure to keep food safe and avoid illness by following the basic food safety steps: Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill.


Wash hands and food-contact surfaces (such as cutting boards) often. Bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, knives, sponges, and counter tops.


Don't cross-contaminate: Don't let bacteria spread from one food product to another. This is especially true for raw meat, poultry and seafood. Keep these foods and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods.


Cook to proper temperatures. Foods are properly cooked when they are heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness.


Refrigerate promptly. Refrigerating foods keeps harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. Refrigerators should be set at 40° Fahrenheit and the freezer at 0° Fahrenheit, and the accuracy of the settings should be checked occasionally with a thermometer.

 Avoid Foodborne Illness

Elderly woman pulling tray from oven

During the holidays, try to avoid foods such as raw oysters; steak tartare; rare or medium hamburger;  soft-boiled eggs; and egg drinks, mousse or bread pudding, unless made with pasteurized eggs or an egg substitute. All of these can grow germs that cause food poisoning. It is very important that those at highest risk (young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those who are ill) not eat raw or undercooked meat or raw oysters.

Remember, most food poisonings are preventable.  Follow two very important rules:

  • Keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
  • Keep everything in the kitchen clean.

Cooking food to a temperature of at least 165° Fahrenheit (F) kills most germs that cause food poisoning. Keep cooked foods that are not served immediately at a temperature between 140° and 165° F. Do not leave food unrefrigerated longer than two hours as this increases chances of bacterial growth.

Most germs get into food through careless handling. Be sure to follow these simple steps:

  • Wash your hands before touching food.
  • Keep towels and washcloths clean. Dirty towels allow germs to grow and get on your hands.

Countertops and utensils should be washed with hot, soapy water between each step in food preparation. Germs from raw meat can get onto other foods if both touch the same surfaces. Also, be careful not to use wooden utensils or cutting boards for raw meat. Do not use them at all if the utensil or board is scored or cut.

Tips and Guidelines

Many traditional meats, including turkey and other poultry, often harbor salmonella organisms. To avoid foodborne illness, proper thawing and cooking are essential.  (See also Turkey Tips.)Cooked thanksgiving turkey garnished with oranges

  • Be sure to wash hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before handling meat or poultry.

  • Cook meat and poultry to the temperature indicated in the chart below to make sure it is cooked thoroughly. Use a meat thermometer, inserting the tip into the thickest part of the meat and avoiding fat or bone. For poultry, insert the tip into the thick part of the thigh next to the body.

  • Partial cooking should be avoided because it allows bacteria to grow. Cook meat and poultry completely at one time.

  • Frozen meat should be cooked one and a half times the period required to prepare thawed food. For example, if 60 minutes is required to cook a dish, allow 90 minutes if the dish is frozen. Cooking turkey is the exception, as it must be thawed completely before cooking. For more information on cooking turkey, see Turkey Tips.

  • Do not cool leftovers on the kitchen counter. Divide them into smaller portions so they will cool more quickly and put them in the refrigerator as soon as possible.

  • Cover leftovers to reheat. This helps maintain moisture and ensures that meat is heated all the way through.


Cooking Meat and Poultry

Once the internal temperature of meat and poultry reaches the levels shown in this table, it indicates the meat or poultry is thoroughly cooked and is safe to eat.  

Internal Temperature Chart

Type Degrees (° Fahrenheit ) 
Fresh Beef  
   Medium Rare 145
   Medium 160
   Well Done 170
Ground Beef 160
Fresh Veal  
   Medium Rare 145
   Medium 160
   Well Done 170
Fresh Lamb  
   Medium Rare 145
   Medium 160
   Well Done 170
   Deer 165
   Rabbit 180
   Duck 180
   Goose 180
   Fried, poached (cook until yolk and white are firm)
   Casseroles 160
   Sauces, custards 160
Chicken 180
Turkey 180
   Turkey Roast (boneless) 170
   Stuffing (inside or outside bird) 165
Fresh Pork
   Chops, Roast, Ribs
      Medium 160
      Well Done 170
Cured Pork
   Ham, Fresh 160
   Sausage, Fresh 160

Note: Internal temperatures indicating safety are slightly higher for home cooking than for commercial cooking, to provide a safety margin in case of variation in the accuracy of home thermometers.

Special Holiday Treats

Some traditional holiday treats may have some special guidelines for safe seasonal enjoyment:

Baked goods: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises consumers not to eat uncooked cookie dough, whether homemade or commercial, or batters made with raw fresh eggs. This is because raw fresh eggs may contain the bacteria Salmonella, which can cause an intestinal infection. Proper and complete cooking kills the bacteria that cause the infection.

Eggnog: Traditional eggnog made with raw eggs is also a potential risk, again because the raw egg may contain the bacteria Salmonella. While cooking can destroy the disease-causing bacteria, consumers can still become ill when the eggnog is left at room temperature for several hours before being consumed. Safe alternatives are pasteurized eggnog beverages sold in grocery dairy cases; these products should be kept refrigerated.

Apple cider and other juices: Apple cider is often served during the holiday season. Apple cider and most juices are pasteurized or otherwise treated to destroy harmful bacteria. Pasteurized juice can be found in the refrigerated or frozen sections of stores. Treated juice is shelf-stable and is normally found in the non-refrigerated juice section of stores. It's packaged in boxes, bottles or cans. Unpasteurized or untreated juice is normally found in the refrigerated sections of grocery stores, health-food stores, cider mills or farm markets. Such juices must have this warning on the label:

WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and therefore, may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.

If you can't tell whether a juice has been processed to destroy harmful bacteria, either don't use the product or boil it to kill any harmful bacteria.

Tiger Meat or Cannibal Sandwiches

Raw meat with garnish in white dish

For some Wisconsinites, it’s a tradition during the holidays to consume raw ground beef dishes, often referred to as tiger meat, steak tartare or cannibal sandwiches, but this practice has significant health risks. Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter and Listeria are bacteria that can lurk in raw and undercooked beef. Regardless of where you purchase your ground beef, these risks are real.

Since 1986, eight outbreaks have been reported in Wisconsin linked to eating a raw ground beef dish, including a large Salmonella outbreak involving more than 150 people during December 1994. Ground beef should ALWAYS be cooked to an internal temperature of 160° F.

For more information, see these resources:


Oysters and Seafood: Buy only fresh seafood that is refrigerated or properly iced. People with liver disorders or weakened immune systems have an increased risk of becoming ill if they consume raw oysters or shellfish.

Mail-order food gifts: Consumers should be careful with mail-order food gifts such as meat, poultry, fish and other perishables such as cheese, fruit, and cheesecake. The gift giver should alert the recipient to the pending arrival of the food gift; the recipient should open the package immediately to make sure that, if it is labeled "keep refrigerated," the food arrives in a chilled state.

Additional Food Safety Resources

Last Revised: November 18, 2015