Gathering round the table for a special meal with family and friends can be a source of joy and feed both body and soul. Cooking late into the night before your meal, however, can greatly diminish the pleasures of the table. Cooking too far ahead can decrease the quality and safety of your food.
Here are some tips to put the focus back on family and friends rather than frenzied (and possibly unsafe) food preparation.
Begin by limiting the number of foods you serve to a few favorites
For example, do you need two (or more) desserts? Remember: desserts spelled backwards is S-T-R-E-S-S-E-D.
Unless food will be frozen, it’s safest to start preparing most perishable foods no more than a day before a meal. For example:
Assemble a vegetable casserole a day in advance, refrigerate and then bake the day of your dinner. Plan 15 to 20 minutes additional heating time for the refrigerated cold casserole. Heat until it’s hot and steamy throughout.
Cut washed fruits and vegetables within a day of your meal for salads and relish trays. (NOTE: Wash fruits and vegetables under cool running tap water.) Store all CUT fruits and vegetables covered such as in storage containers or single-use plastic bags in the refrigerator. Store fresh-cut produce above raw meat, poultry and fish, and below cooked items. Avoid leaving cut and/or peeled fruit and vegetables at room temperature for more than two hours. This includes the TOTAL of preparation time and serving time.
Keep cut fruits such as apples, pears, bananas and peaches from turning brown by coating them with an acidic juice such as lemon, orange or pineapple juice. Or use a commercial anti-darkening preparation. Cover and refrigerate cut fruit until ready to serve. (NOTE: Bananas don’t keep as long as the other fruits mentioned – cut close to serving time.)
Non-perishable foods such as cakes and cookies can be prepared a few days in advance and still taste good. Or, they can be frozen for longer storage.
Special tips for handling meat:
As a general rule-of-thumb, purchase fresh raw meat, poultry or seafood no more than 1-2 days before your holiday meal. Freeze for longer storage. These foods taste freshest if cooked the day of your meal.
If you have frozen your meat, poultry or seafood, plan time for safe thawing in your refrigerator. Allow approximately 24 hours for each 5 pounds of weight. For turkey, make sure you remove the bag containing the neck and giblets from the body cavity.
To prevent cross-contamination, thaw or store a package of raw meat, poultry or seafood on a plate on a lower shelf of your refrigerator to prevent its juices from dripping on other foods.
If you prepare meat, poultry or seafood the day before your meal, divide it into small portions. Then refrigerate in loosely covered shallow containers within two hours of cooking – limit depth of meat, etc. to about 2 inches. You can place loosely covered foods in the refrigerator while still warm; cover tightly when food is completely cooled. On the day of your meal, reheat thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees until hot and steaming throughout.
Preparing pumpkin pie ahead of time:
Pumpkin pie is especially popular around the holidays. A pumpkin pie is a form of custard and must be kept in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or cooler. Foods which contain eggs, milk and any with a high moisture content must be kept refrigerated, as bacteria love to grow in these foods. Avoid letting a pumpkin pie set at room temperature for more than TWO hours. That means it shouldn’t sit out more than TWO hours total including after it’s baked and while waiting to be served.
(NOTE: Some commercial pumpkin pies purchased at room temperature may later need to be refrigerated. Check the label on commercially baked pies for storage requirements. Don’t buy pies stored at room temperature if label directions are unclear or missing.)
If you’d like to get a head start on preparing your pumpkin pie, it’s easiest and safest to freeze just your shaped and unbaked pie crust in a freezer- or oven-safe pie pan. Or, purchase an unbaked frozen pie crust already in a pie pan. Then, add the pumpkin filling, mixed according to directions, to the frozen crust just before baking. It takes just a few minutes to mix together the ingredients.
Unless the directions with your frozen pie crust recommend otherwise, place a baking sheet in your oven and pre-heat your oven to the baking temperature given in your pie recipe. Then place your pie on the hot baking sheet and bake your pie as usual the day of your meal. To save additional time, buy a pie filling with the spices already added, especially if you must buy extra spices just for your pie.
Instead of making a baked pumpkin pie, consider making a form of pumpkin pie that can be frozen such as Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie.
Angela Treadaway is a Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety. For any questions on food safety or preparation of vegetables, contact her at 205-410-3696 or your local county Extension office.