For many young Soldiers, joining the Army is a way to travel the world and gain independence, and as they start their own Families, they may find themselves preparing a Thanksgiving feast for the first time.
That means over the holiday season, Soldiers and Families should take care to make sure every Thanksgiving dish is cooked safely to ensure their guests stay healthy.
“People can get sick if the food isn’t cooked to a proper temperature, especially your meats,” said Staff Sgt. Travis Russell, the manager of the Rakkasan Warrior Restaurant. “You can get food poisoning from that, or if you leave something like egg salad at room temperature too long. Anything with dairy, eggs and mayonnaise in it you’ll want to refrigerate, because it goes bad quickly at room temperature. And you should get rid of leftovers after three days.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, an estimated one in six Americans become sick from food poisoning each year. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, upset stomach or nausea, and severe cases can lead to dehydration or hospitalization.
Foodborne illnesses are also responsible for killing approximately 3,000 Americans per year, but strong prevention measures can reduce the risk of illness.
The CDC recommends people wash their hands and any work surfaces before, during and after food preparation. They should also keep each dish separated from the others to prevent cross contamination, which can cause allergic reactions or spread germs.
“Use gloves to avoid cross contamination, and also keep your food items separate,” Russell said. “If you’re seasoning or cutting vegetables with your turkey, or you’ve got turkey and pork, you always want to separate those cutting boards or pans.”
When it comes to cooking a turkey – or any raw meat – it’s important to thaw it properly and cook it to a safe temperature. A list of recommended temperatures for meat and poultry is available at https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/meat-poultry-charts.
“The first mistake that people tend to make is when they thaw their Thanksgiving turkey or ham,” said Capt. Jeffrey Bryson, field service veterinary officer, First Year Graduate Veterinary Education-Fort Campbell. “Foods should be thawed in the refrigerator rather than the counter, as this helps to prevent bacterial overgrowth during the thawing process. Bacteria grow best at temperatures between 40- and 140-degrees Fahrenheit.”
Russell said Soldiers and Families should also avoid roasting the turkey overnight because leaving the oven on while sleeping is a fire hazard.
“Always be careful of your temperatures, and be cognizant of flames, grease and all that stuff,” he said. “If you’ve got a gas stove, make sure to move any aerosol cans, cooking sprays or things like that so they aren’t next to it.”
In addition to being mindful of fire hazards, Russell said keep an eye on the food cooking in the oven to make sure it doesn’t burn.
“It’s basically like your regular Sunday dinner – don’t overcook anything,” Russell said. “Say you’ve got your macaroni and cheese going in the oven; if you’re seeing it brown a little bit that’s fine. But if it’s starting to boil over and get dark, you’re overcooking it.”
Once food is cooked, Bryson said it should be maintained at a temperature above 140 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the growth of bacteria before the meal is served.
“The maximum amount of time that food should be stored at this temperature is four hours,” he said. “[It] should then be promptly refrigerated. It’s important to divide food into small quantities to allow for efficient cooling.”
Soldiers and Families may be tempted to share a bite with their pets during the meal, but Bryson said they need to make sure whatever they feed their furry friends is healthy for them.
“Safe foods that you can share with your pet include small amounts of sweet potato, baked or boiled beans, boiled potatoes, summer squash, apples or pumpkin,” he said. “Be sure not to include butter, sour cream or spices in the foods you share with your pet.”
Other dangerous foods for pets include onions, grapes, chocolate and raisins, which are inherently toxic to dogs and cats. Table scraps like fatty trimmings, turkey skin and pork can also increase their risk for pancreatitis.
“Place trash where your pets cannot reach it, especially when it comes to poultry bones and rancid scraps,” Bryson said. “Poultry bones easily splinter and can puncture the gastrointestinal [GI] tract of your dog or cat, leading to a medical emergency, and rancid scraps often lead to GI disease.”
For more information about food safety and illness prevention, visit https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/food-poisoning.html.