Food Safety & Travel

— Written By Morgan McKnight

Many folks are planning to travel over the holidays. This may lead to two different potential food safety problems. The first is what to do with any food left behind in the home refrigerator and the other is foods you may be taking with you.

You’ll be gone several days for the holidays, think about what can you do with the foods that stay behind in the refrigerator? Depending upon how long you are gone, some of that food that food may no longer be safe or will decrease in quality before your return? Plan ahead a little and “eat down” your refrigerated foods just before you leave town.

Raw peppers, onion, tomatoes, celery, and carrots can be chopped and put into the freezer without cooking or blanching. Their texture will change due to freezing, but they can be used in cooking when you get back. So you don’t have more loss in quality, these vegetables should be used soon after you return.

You also can freeze fresh or canned fruit that’s been opened. Freeze for a few hours or overnight in a single layer on a cookie sheet or in a shallow metal pan and then transfer frozen fruit to freezer bags for later use. Take bananas out of their peels and freeze for use in smoothies when you return. Again, all of these items should be used up quickly for best quality.

If you still have fresh foods, instead of throwing it in the trash, perhaps you can give it to someone who’s not traveling. We frequently give our neighbors fresh fruits and vegetables we know we won’t be able to eat before we go.

While you may want to take food to your hosts or contribute to the holiday meal, traveling any distance with food may lead to potential problems. When deciding what to take, consider the type of food and distance to travel.

The “golden rule” of food safety is to keep hot foods hot and cold food cold. Don’t guess on the temperature, just because it “feels” cool or warm, it may not be in the safe range. Use a thermometer to check. Hot foods should be kept over 140 degrees and cold foods under 40 degrees. When food is kept at room temperature (above 40 or below 140) for more than two hours, bacteria can easily multiply and cause foodborne illness.

If you’re only traveling a short distance you can easily and safely bring perishable foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products or foods containing these items. If you can’t be sure you can keep the food safe, it might be better if you offer to bring non-perishables such as beverages, rolls, breads, and cookies.

It’s important to keep HOT foods hot (140 F or higher) by wrapping them in foil and then in heavy towels. Or, carry them in insulated wrappers or containers designed to keep food hot. Instead of cooking food at home and trying to keep it warm, it might be easier and safer to carry all perishable uncooked food in an ice chest and prepare the food after you arrive. This is definitely one of those things you’re going to have to check out with your hosts ahead of time.

Upon arrival, place cold foods into the refrigerator. Put hot foods immediately into an oven, slow cooker, chafing dish or warming units. Take care when bringing leftovers home. Once the meal is over, if the food has been held at a safe temperature, leftovers can be packed in shallow containers, refrigerated and taken home. If food was left out at room temperature for two hours or more, the safest bet may be to pitch it and not try to travel with it again.

Cheryle Jones Syracuse
Family and Consumer Science Staff
N.C. Cooperative Extension
Brunswick County Center