Holiday silver lining: Avoiding foodborne illnesses while traveling with food

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As if the winter holidays are not enough stress, between making your gift list, shopping for gifts and deciding which party to attend, some of us add holiday travel to our to-do lists. Immediately following the decision to visit relative or friends for the holidays comes the big question — what food to bring to the party? Just the thought of all of this can be stressful, but don’t worry here is some food safety traveling advice.

The first step to make traveling with food safe and memorable while avoiding the risk of foodborne illness is to plan ahead. Get to know your food options for better decision making:

“Shelf stable” foods can be safely stored at room temperature; such as fruit cakes, country hams or canned cranberry sauce. However, not all canned goods are shelf stable. Some canned food, such as canned ham and seafood, are not safe at room temperature. These will be labeled “Keep Refrigerated.”

If you are traveling with perishable foods (those likely to spoil or become unsafe if not kept refrigerated at 40°F or below), place them in a cooler with ice or freezer packs. Examples of foods that must be kept refrigerated for safety include meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and all cooked foods. Have plenty of ice or frozen gel packs on hand before starting to pack the food. If you take perishable foods along for eating while traveling, or to cook at your destination, plan to keep everything on ice in your cooler.

The second step to traveling with food is to pack properly so it will be safe to eat when you reach your destination. Always remember to bring an appliance thermometer to check the temperature inside the cooler when you reach your destination. When packing perishable food:

Pack directly from the refrigerator or freezer into the portable cooler. Meat and poultry may be packed while it is still frozen; that way it stays colder longer (40°F or below). Also, a full cooler will maintain its cold temperature longer than one that is partially filled. If the cooler is only partially filled, pack the remaining space with more ice or frozen gel packs. Be sure to keep raw meat and poultry wrapped separately from cooked foods, or ready-to-eat foods, such as fruits or bread. Limit the times the cooler is opened to keep it colder longer. Open and close the cooler lid quickly, but only open it when necessary.

If you are traveling with hot foods, you can use an insulated container to keep the food hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated container closed to keep the food hot — 140°F or above.

We hope this food safety traveling guidance will ease your holiday travel and you can find the silver lining to avoid any foodborne illnesses — the ultimate holiday gift.

Consumers with questions about food safety can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist in English or Spanish at AskKaren.gov, available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday. AskKaren provides live chats as well as food safety information 24/7.