Tips for Winter Holiday Meals

New Years Eve party toastFrom eggnog to fruitcake and all that’s served in between, our Advisory Board members have provided tips to help make your holiday feast(s) safe and tasty. So let’s get started on our journey through the traditional holiday dinner.



Food process engineer Dr. Tim Bowser provides these tips on handling the season’s traditional alcoholic beverages.


Making and storing eggnog:

Of course, you can buy non-alcoholic eggnog in almost every grocery store this time of year and then add the alcohol. But if you want to make your own, you’ll find some of my favorite recipes are available at the following links.


Safe eggnog recipe from Utah State University:


The Joy of Eggnog by Patricia Mitchell


When making eggnog, be sure to use pasteurized eggs, or pasteurize them yourself by cooking the egg and milk mixture to 160° F. Even in the fridge, it won’t last long–about three days if well prepared. Alcohol can act as a preservative, but it is diluted in the eggnog and cannot be relied on to effectively kill bacteria. One option is to use leftover eggnog as an ingredient in a recipe like cake or ice cream.


Preserving champagne: If you have leftover champagne, the most basic option is to tightly cap (with original cork or facsimile if possible) and refrigerate. The cap will hold in the bubbles and refrigeration will slow their escape and reduce microbiological activity. Some vendors sell replacement caps that are easy to install and remove, and hold securely. Another option is to pressurize the headspace to prevent the bubbles from escaping. This can be accomplished with a device such as an Epivac stopper, which uses a small pump to force air into the bottle. Reminder: when opening the bottle, do NOT point the cork towards anyone. 


Preserving wine: Concepts of preservation for wine are similar to champagne; first tightly cap the bottle and refrigerate it. You can use a device like an “Epivac stopper” to pump air out of the bottle. The removal of air will help preserve the wine by slowing oxidation. Another, perhaps better, option is to purchase a container of preservative gas and spray it into the headspace of the wine bottle. The preservative gas displaces the headspace air with an inert gas (like nitrogen) which is heavier than air and does not support oxidation of the wine.


To learn more about the proper care of wine, click here:




Food scientist Dr. Clair Hicks supplies these tips on handling appetizers properly.


Cheese: Most cheese tastes best if warmed to room temperature prior to serving. Set it out, covered, for about 20 minutes before the party begins. Cheese should not be set out for a long period of time. After a couple of hours at room temperature, cheese will start to dry out, so it is best to serve only as much cheese as you think will be consumed in 30 minutes. When that’s gone, you can replenish the supply. If cheese is left out for more than an hour, it dries out, so discard it for quality reasons. If not too dry, hard cheeses can be refrigerated and served again at the next party. Safety of hard cheese at room temperature is not a big issue. High moisture soft cheeses should be discarded after the eating event if they’ve been out of the fridge for awhile.


For more information on cheeses, click here and


Other appetizers: Most other appetizers, including raw vegetables, are best if served chilled. Vegetables maintain their crisp textures longer if the serving dish is placed on a bed of ice. Some appetizers, such as shrimp rings, should always be kept on a bed of ice. These types of appetizers should also be put out in small portions so that they are consumed within 30 minutes and then replaced with a new batch. This procedure will limit the growth of spoilage organisms. Items such as shrimp rings that have been set out for more than 1 – 1½ hours should be discarded.




About one-half of all American families eat turkey for Xmas dinner, but lamb and ham are also popular choices.  Some  households try duck or goose for a change from the usual fare. Others eat what is or was the traditional entrée in their families’ country of origin. 


Shelf Life Advice has many Q/As on the more common entrées in the meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish categories. You can reach these by clicking on the home page photos (or the text below them) or entering the product name in the search feature on the site’s home page. The Q/As cover safe handling, preparation tips, and shelf life information about the products. 


To find out how to cook  exotic poultry, ask the Internet.  Flightless birds such as the emu, ostrich, and rhea are served in more innovative restaurants and are growing in popularity because they taste like beef but contain much less fat. If you want to work extraordinarily hard preparing a holiday feast, consider constructing turducken. This dish combines different kinds of  boneless poultry (usually chicken, turkey, and duck) into a single layered dish. 




Casseroles, potatoes, and other starchy foods: Food scientist Karin Allen points out that any starchy, moist side dish (a casserole, sweet potatoes, etc.) must be handled with care after being cooked to avoid contaminating it. The particular bacteria of concern are Staphylococcus aureus, commonly called “staph.”   When vegetables are raw, there is a limit to how much staph can grow because staph is not very competitive.  Other bacteria limit how fast it can multiply. But once the other bacteria are killed by cooking, a product that is recontaminated with staph may quickly become a source of illness. Staph are a very common bacteria. It’s in the environment—in nasal passages and on the skin—and it thrives in a warm, high starch environment. Even if the food has been heated properly, the toxin may remain behind and cause illness within 3-4 hours. So here’s the warning: When working with cooked food, especially starchy cooked food, be especially careful. Use clean hands and clean utensils. Before refrigerating leftovers, spread them out no thicker than 2 inches and make smaller portions rather than refrigerating a large amount in one container. Reheat the food to 165°F.


Vegetables: If your holiday entertaining involves smaller groups, Dr. Allen has this suggestion: since vegetables don’t reheat well, don’t cook a large quantity at one time. Instead, blanche them, and throw them into an ice bath to stop the cooking. Why? In the fridge, blanched vegetables will last longer than fresh vegetables then you can finish cooking them in smaller quantities (for 2-3 minutes) as you need them.




Cakes and cookies: Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter gives us the good news that many popular winter holiday treats have a long shelf life (if they don’t get gobbled up first). Because the sugar and shortening bind much of the water, there’s little left to supply the needs of pathogens. Other components, like butter and shortening, don’t support the growth of bacteria. Fruitcake, for example, which some folks say will last forever, has a shelf life of at least a year (maybe 3) unopened and a few months opened and refrigerated. The alcohol in it can inhibit the growth of microorganisms, though to what extent depends upon how much alcohol. But beware of mold. When fruitcake goes from cold to warm (e.g. from the fridge to the table), condensation of water on the surface of the cake may encourage mold spores to germinate. 


Gingerbread cookies and houses (even if made with graham crackers) are also very shelf stable. Ginger has natural anti-microbial characteristics that inhibit pathogens. However, the fat in it can become rancid. Gingerbread goodies may be safe to eat for a couple of months, but the quality may deteriorate sooner than that.


Cakes with whipped cream and/or fresh fruit require refrigeration, but those with butter cream frosting do not. 


Pies: Parties always seem to lead to a shortage of refrigerator space, and, faced with that problem, many hosts and hostesses assume that it’s okay to leave desserts on the table. But be conservative about doing so, especially with pies. Dr. Cutter explains that pies with custard, egg, or whipped cream need refrigeration. Fruit pies can tolerate being out on the buffet longer, but they may become moldy eventually. If not refrigerated, they should be eaten within a week; if refrigerated, they’ll last a few days longer. Pecan pie is pretty stable for about a week. Refrigeration is a good idea to keep quality better and avoid oxidation or rancidity. Room temperature speeds up microbial growth and rancidity; refrigeration lengthens shelf life. 


Homemade pies with meringue topping may not survive freezing very well. (Commercial meringue-topped pies  withstand freezing because of added stabilizers.)


To reach Q/As on cake and cake mixes, click here:


To reach Q/As on cookies, click here:


To reach Q/As on pies and pastries, click here:



Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D.  Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural    Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D. University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D. Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


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