Cooking together is a treasured holiday tradition for many families. They take joy in building gingerbread houses, baking cookies, and trying to master the secrets behind grandma’s famous Thanksgiving turkey. But—as with any project—it’s important we all abide by a few rules to keep everyone in the holiday spirit and out of the hospital. If you have younger children helping out in the kitchen this season (or you plan on cooking a holiday feast for the whole family), follow these simple tips to make sure everyone stays healthy, happy, and well-fed.
1. Always wash your hands before you cook.
Germs don’t take holidays, and children are proverbial magnets for bacteria! Salmonella, E. coli, norovirus, and the common cold—they’re nasty little buggers. But a good scrub can go a long way to help prevent these illnesses. To keep food sanitary—and your family healthy—be sure to have everyone wash their hands before they start cooking.
The CDC has found that when communities understand the importance of hand-washing, the occurrence of respiratory illnesses (like a cold) decreases by 16–21 percent
Washing your hands can decrease the likelihood of diarrheal (sorry if this makes you lose your appetite) sickness by 31 percent
2. How to Wash
Studies have found that water temperature is only part of the solution to staying healthy; water that’s too hot can actually damage your skin too. In order to effectively remove germs, wash your hands in water as cool as 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) and scrub with soap for 20 seconds or more. Try singing a verse of a holiday song while washing. Not only will this make the process more fun for small children, but it will ensure they wash their hands for an adequate amount of time.
Some people negate the hand-washing process completely when they use a soiled dish cloth or dirty towel to dry their hands. Always have a clean towel on-hand (no pun intended), to make sure your hands are germ-free.
3. Use separate tools when food prep involves raw meat.
Even if you wash your hands before you cook or bake, you can still pass pathogens onto your food—and those who eat it. After touching raw meat or dairy, always rewash your hands! Also, never reuse the same cutting board, knife, or bowl that has touched raw meat or dairy for other ingredients. For instance, if you’re making soup, it’s okay to chop everything with the same tools and toss it into the pot. However, it’s not cool to chop chicken for the grill and then use the same knife and cutting board to prepare a raw salad.
4. Abide by food safe-cooking times and meat temperatures.
Undercooking food is really dangerous because it doesn’t reach a hot enough temperature to kill off harmful bacteria. Print this chart, keep it on your refrigerator, and make sure you have a food thermometer to double-check food temperatures before you eat. Even the freshest ingredients can contain harmful bacteria that can make you sick.
Ground Meat & Meat Mixtures
Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb
Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb
Steaks, roasts, chops
Chicken & Turkey, whole
Poultry breasts, roasts
Poultry thighs, legs, wings
Duck & Goose
Stuffing (cooked alone or in bird)
Pork and Ham
Fresh ham (raw)
Precooked ham (to reheat)
Eggs & Egg Dishes
Cook until yolk and whites are firm
Leftovers & Casseroles
145 or cook until flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork.
Shrimp, lobster, and crabs
Cook until flesh is pearly and opaque.
Clams, oysters, and mussels
Cook until shells open during cooking.
Cook until flesh is milky white or opaque and firm.
5. Avoid raw cookie dough
Eggs can carry Salmonella—which can cause extreme diarrhea and even more serious complications. But that’s not the only risk of eating raw dough. Flour is an uncommonly known carrier of E. coli. To ensure no one gets sick after dessert this holiday, try your best to cook all doughs before chowing down.
6. Clean up completely.
Just because the counters look clean doesn’t mean they are. You may have wiped everything up with a sponge, but used sponges can actually pass germs onto your culinary creations. Clean your sponge 99 percent by microwaving it to remove germs between dishwashing. Also, never use a sponge to mop up raw meat juices if you plan on using it again; disposable towels are best for that.
7. Keep recipes age-appropriate.
All children can help in the kitchen, but not all children can help with the same kinds of tasks. To keep everyone safe, assign cooking duties according to age. Younger children can add pre-measured ingredients or stir mixtures, while older children can be in charge of tasks requiring more complex skills. Remember, there are no small roles—only small helpers.
8. Dress the part.
Comfort is key, but loose-fitting clothes can droop, snag, and create unnecessary hazards in the kitchen. Make sure all protective clothing fits properly before anyone starts cooking. You can even buy small aprons for each child and spend an afternoon helping the kids decorate them.
9. Set safety-zones.
Hot stoves, sharp knives, and gas flames are all hazards for kids. That’s why setting clear boundaries and giving your kids rules when they’re in the kitchen can help keep them safe. When a grown-up isn’t around to supervise, make sure they know ovens and other appliances are a no-no. Even when you are present, set a safety zone around hot ovens and stoves, and give your children a separate kid-friendly utensil drawer, so they don’t grab a sharp knife.
10. Teach safe habits.
You help kids remember street safety by teaching them to look twice before they cross, so do the same thing in the kitchen to reinforce smart habits. For example, show the kids how turning pot handles in toward the stove greatly reduces the chances of spills and burns. If your kitchen is small or if there are more people in it than usual, take some time to run through some basic fire safety tips and first aid practices before starting on a new recipe.
11. Be realistic.
Holiday cooking should be fun! Plan simple recipes that you and your loved ones can easily accomplish without worry. Don’t attempt elaborate dishes, and certainly don’t make something your little helpers won’t eat. While you may not be entering your finished confections into any baking competitions, the time spent together will be a nice reward on its own.
Have some food safety or cooking safety tips you want to share? We’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.