The holidays are right around the corner, which means it’s time for firming up plans. But with ongoing concerns about flu season and COVID-19, and an increase in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), you may be wondering just how you can host for the holidays or gather safely this holiday season.
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However you choose to celebrate this year, there may be tough choices ahead — especially for anyone who’s sick and wondering how long they could be contagious. Family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD, shares tips on how you can decrease the amount of germs at the dinner table and provides advice for having a safe holiday celebration.
Tips for a germ-free holiday
Whether you’re hosting a small or large gathering, visiting friends or family, or celebrating in a public place, there are ways to celebrate safely and reduce your likelihood of getting sick.
Follow the CDC holiday guidelines
Yep, those U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) holiday guidelines they put in place at the height of COVID-19 are still applicable. At the very least, you’ll want to get vaccinated (especially for the flu and COVID-19) and wash your hands often. For extra precaution, you may even want to consider wearing a mask to protect yourself and others from getting sick.
“COVID-19, influenza and other bacteria and viruses haven’t left us,” says Dr. Vyas. “Before you plan a get-together, make sure you and your family and friends are immunized. If you are experiencing any symptoms of any virus, it’s best to stay home.”
Set healthy boundaries
You’ll want to set and manage expectations for any holiday celebration well in advance. If you’re uncomfortable with someone’s vaccination status, it’s OK to broach the topic and request your visitors have the most recent vaccines. At-home COVID-19 tests have also made it easier to get tested on the day of any event just to be sure you’re well enough to attend.
“Don’t forget that there are those among us who are the most immunocompromised like the elderly and the very young who are sometimes unable to receive vaccines to protect themselves,” notes Dr. Vyas. “By doing your part, you are protecting yourself and others.”
Ask your guests about allergies
With so many dishes, it can be easy to forget all the different ingredients that are being used — making those with severe food allergies vulnerable to potential allergic reactions. Ahead of hosting an event, ask your guests if they have any allergens. You can also print out the recipes you use and provide them to your guests as an alternative. This is especially helpful if clams find their way into your stuffing and you just happen to forget they belong to the shellfish family.
“The most common allergies are wheat, soy, milk, shellfish and nuts,” says Dr. Vyas. “By checking in with your guests ahead of time about potential food allergies and preferences, you can avoid any accidental harm.”
Separate your meats and veggies and keep stuffing on the side
To avoid cross-contamination, slice and dice your meats and veggies separately using different knives and cutting boards for each. If you have a limited number of knives or cutting boards, wash them with soap and water before moving them between your meats and veggies. And if you’re going to have stuffing, cook it on its own instead of stuffing it inside your meat.
“If you cook stuffing inside your turkey, you could end up overcooking the stuffing and undercooking the turkey,” warns Dr. Vyas. “Plus, the juices and bacteria from the turkey can actually leach into the stuffing, which can be harmful if it’s not cooked correctly.”
Don’t wash poultry
It’s OK to wash your hands before doing any food prep (and you should, anyway), but you never want to wash poultry like chicken or turkey. On the surface, you may be thinking you’re washing away any harmful bacteria like salmonella, but contaminated droplets or juices from your bird could actually end up spreading to countertops, sinks and other surfaces, increasing your chances for salmonella contamination.
“Instead, you want to cook the turkey straight away after removing it from the fridge or after it’s thawed,” states Dr. Vyas.
Plated dishes are safer than a buffet-style approach
It takes a little more preparation and work, especially from the host, but having one person plate dishes and serve the food is safer than having everyone get their own plates from a buffet or potluck-style table. Doing this limits the number of people who come into contact with the food that everyone’s eating, which in turn, limits the amount of germs spread among the party.
If you do have a potluck or buffet, don’t let food sit out
But if you plan to have a buffet-style approach or a potluck where everyone brings their own dishes, keep food covered while it’s sitting out and don’t leave it out for longer than two hours.
“If you do find that your meals are sitting out longer than that, put the food back in the fridge so that it doesn’t linger and won’t have the potential for bacteria to grow on it,” says Dr. Vyas.
Keep your surfaces clean
You’ll want to keep surfaces like tabletops, counters and chairs clean by using natural cleaning products or soap and water before guests arrive and after they leave. You’ll want to do the same before and after food prep. But save the disinfecting wipes for the final cleanse to avoid mixing fumes or contaminating your food.
“Having fresh, small, clean towels or disposable towels in the bathroom for your guests can also be helpful if you don’t want everyone to use the same towel when they’re done washing their hands,” says Dr. Vyas.
When should you skip the holiday celebration?
If you’re feeling unwell or show any signs or symptoms of any illness, it’s best to stay home and seek medical treatment from a healthcare provider. And if you’re just not feeling it and don’t want to risk attending a huge get-together, that’s OK, too. It’s important to keep your feelings, comfort and responsibilities in mind when planning for the holidays.
Your situation could also change suddenly. Whether it’s a positive test or an onset of symptoms for either you or your family, it’s possible that even the best-made plans might go sideways at the last minute. If this happens, take precautions and be kind to yourself and others — we’re all doing the best we can, and no one should feel slighted if plans fall by the wayside.