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Prepare kitchen for spring with safety principles

By Susan Hill, Regional Extension Agent

While freshening up those indoor and outdoor spaces for spring, don’t forget the kitchen. From cleaning out old food items to changing menus around for a new season – including setting a special menu for Easter and other holidays – here are some principles and ideas to keep in mind.


As part of spring decluttering or cleaning out that pantry, here are some old habits you can toss as well:


  • Old habit: More than one in four Americans admit to thawing a frozen turkey or other main meat dish on the kitchen counter, in the oven or even under hot water in the kitchen sink. Many people also forget to allow enough time for a large turkey to thaw completely.
  • New tradition: To prevent the spread of harmful bacteria, frozen meats should be thawed in the refrigerator. If pressed for time, wrapped frozen meat can be thawed in a large pot of cold, running water; do not thaw in warm water in the sink. Smaller pieces of meat can thaw as they cook or can be defrosted in the microwave. Remember: A large 10-15 lb. turkey could take up to three days to thaw in the refrigerator.


  • Old habit: Nearly four out of five home cooks think it’s necessary to wait until foods cool completely before putting them in the refrigerator because they will cause the temperature to rise in the refrigerator.
  • New tradition: When storing leftover foods in the refrigerator, they should be cooled quickly or put in the refrigerator in less than two hours. To ensure foods will cool down in the refrigerator, cut up meats and put larger containers of food in smaller, shallower pans. Make sure the refrigerator is 41 degrees or lower and that the freezer is 0 degrees or lower.


  • Old habit: Three out of five holiday families typically travel for at least one hour with their homemade holiday dishes to a relative or friend’s home.
  • New tradition: If it’s going to take more than an hour, consider packing your cold dish in a cooler or hot dish in an insulated bag to keep it safe and bacteria-free.  Keep hot foods 140 degrees or hotter and cold foods 41 degrees or lower.


  • Old habit: While a majority of home cooks remember to bring gravy to a boil before serving it, many forget the same rule also applies during the encore presentation. In fact, more than half just reheat leftover gravy in the microwave until it’s hot before serving again.
  • New tradition: To eliminate harmful bacteria, always bring leftover gravy to a boil on the stove before serving it a second or even third time around.  Always reheat foods to 165 degrees.


  • Old habit: Many people prepare foods like turkey, dressing and some casseroles during the night by turning the oven down to 250 degrees or lower so they will slowly cook.
  • New tradition: Either cook the day before, refrigerate and reheat to 165 degrees the day of the meal or cook two smaller turkeys at 325 degrees – or go out for lunch.  Foods like turkey should not be cooked below 325 degrees because cooking any lower will facilitate the already-growing bacteria. Cook an unstuffed 8-10-lb. turkey at 325 degrees in an oven cooking bag for 1.5-2.5 hours. It should be 180 degrees when measured with a thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh or breast.


  • Old habit: Many people have family in during the holidays, and too many times don’t take time to clean the kitchen well.
  • New tradition: Always try to clean counters and utensils well and wash your hands before and during the cooking process to prevent cross contamination.  Cooking ahead of time and freezing is a great option, too, to save time. Make sure helpers in the kitchen wash their hands often .


  • Old habit: Many people like to store pies, cakes and some meat on the porch or in the garage because of lack of storage space – and they know their great-great-great-grandmother always did this, so it’s fine, right?
  • New tradition: Unless you live in Alaska, this would not be a good idea. It would need to be 41 degrees or cooler to maintain refrigerator temperatures. Additionally, animals could happen along and either eat – or do something worse – to your food. Great-great-great-grandmother did not have the environment and additives we have today; most of their food was raised on a farm, and everything was fresh, and more than likely her immune system was much stronger than most of ours today.


  • Old habit: People believe leftovers are fine, as long as they are kept in the refrigerator, for seven to 10 days.
  • New tradition: Foods not eaten within three or four days should be thrown away. After six or seven days, do not feed to animals, either. Leftovers used within four days should be reheated to 165 degrees.