Everyday Health

5 Easy Ways to Make the Holiday Season Healthier

Originally published November 3, 2020

Last updated April 30, 2024

Reading Time: 4 minutes

An African American woman seasons a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner

From keeping leftovers safe to managing holiday stress, these tips can help make the holiday season a little merrier.

The holiday season is filled with joy and cheer … and also lots of stress, too many sweets, alcohol overindulgence and questionable food practices (exactly how long can you continue to eat leftover turkey without getting sick?). And this particular holiday season brings the additional challenges of celebrating during a pandemic. But, while we’re rethinking how we celebrate, let’s not forget the classic rules of staying safe during the holidays.

1. Prep and cook food safely.

Every year, an estimated 1 in 6 Americans gets food poisoning, so take care when preparing and cooking your holiday food with the following tips:

    • Thaw your turkey safely. When you take your Thanksgiving turkey out of the freezer, don’t let it sit out on the counter while it defrosts. Instead, thaw it in the fridge, in the sink with cold water or in the microwave.
    • Keep certain foods separated. Keep raw poultry, meat, seafood and eggs away from other foods, and use a separate cutting board and tools.
    • Cook stuffing thoroughly. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cooking stuffing in a separate dish is the easiest way to make sure it’s cooked through. But, thankfully for bird-stuffing lovers everywhere, the CDC does provide guidance for safely cooking it: Put the stuffing in the turkey just before it goes in the oven, make sure the center of the stuffing is cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and allow it to rest in the turkey for 20 minutes after cooking. The turkey itself should also be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Have a food thermometer handy. “It’s important to cook foods to the proper temperatures to reduce your risk for foodborne illness,” says Jennifer R. Boozer, DO, a family medicine physician at Keck Medicine of USC and a clinical associate professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “An instant-read thermometer can help you make sure your food is safe.”
  • Make sure your hands are clean. “Just like mom always said: Be sure to wash your hands before you start cooking or preparing food,” Boozer says.

2. Keep leftovers safe.

If you’re wondering whether those appetizers have been out too long, you might be better off tossing them.

These tips can help keep your leftovers safe:

  • Know the danger zone. Anything lukewarm, or between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, can develop bacteria growth that can lead to food poisoning.
  • Refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours of cooking. “It’s always best to make sure food stays hot or cold,” Boozer explains. “Promptly refrigerating leftovers is very important to avoid foodborne illness.”
  • Don’t worry about cooling off food before refrigerating it. You don’t need to cool down food before it goes into the fridge — it’s best to get it into the refrigerator right away, even if it’s still hot, so that it goes from a high temperature to a low temperature fast. In addition, make sure the food is divided into small enough portions or containers to be able to cool quickly.
  • Keep an eye on your calendar. How long can those leftovers stay in your refrigerator? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety guidelines, leftover turkey can be refrigerated for three to four days, so that means until the Monday after Thanksgiving. Turkey can also be frozen to eat later — just keep in mind that it’s ideal to eat frozen turkey within two to six months.

3. Take action to prevent respiratory illnesses, like the flu.

Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve all become familiar with simple measures that can also help prevent other respiratory illnesses, such as the flu.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly — and often. “One of the best ways to stay well is to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap,” Boozer says.
  • Get your flu shot. Although some people may think that they should skip the flu shot this year, it’s actually more important than ever to protect yourself in order to stay healthy, avoid co-infection with the flu and COVID-19 and keep more medical resources available to those who need them. Talk to your doctor about how to safely receive the flu vaccine during the pandemic. “Remember, the flu shot is not a live vaccine, so it cannot give you the flu,” Boozer adds.

4. Enjoy holiday treats, but don’t overdo it.

The holidays are always an excuse to overindulge, and this year more than ever we’re in need of some comfort food. But it’s still best to sample sweets, alcohol and other goodies in moderation.

“It’s fine to treat yourself on a holiday but not all season long,” Boozer says.

Boozer recommends the following to keep your holiday eating habits in check:

  • Keep an eye on portions. Stick to enjoying small portions of sweet or rich foods.
  • Make a commitment to yourself to choose healthier options. This can include filling up on vegetables and lean proteins.
  • Bring a healthy dish to share. “That way, you know there will be something reasonable to enjoy,” she says.

5. Manage your stress level.

There are great techniques for managing holiday stress that can also help keep your body healthy:

  • Get moving. “One of the best ways to help manage holiday stress is to make sure you exercise regularly: Thirty minutes of moderately vigorous activity at least five days a week is a good habit for your overall health, as well,” Boozer says. If you haven’t exercised much before, it’s okay to start slow. “Don’t overcommit — set realistic expectations, and don’t forget to take care of yourself,” she says.
  • Practice self-care. Getting quality sleep and connecting with others are great self-care practices for managing stress. You can also try relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, mindfulness meditation or yoga.

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Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a freelance writer covering health, culture, travel and parenting.