Traveling with Holiday Foods? How to Avoid Foodborne Illness

December 12, 2017
Janice López-Muñoz, BS, MSIH

Janice López-Muñoz, BS, MSIH, is a public affairs specialist with the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The winter holidays are a busy time of year, and sometimes that includes holiday travel. If you’re visiting relatives or friends, will you be bringing food too? No one wants to get sick from food at a holiday party, especially if someone has cancer.share on twitter Here is some advice for getting that food to your destination safely.

Step 1. Plan ahead

The first step is to plan ahead. You want a memorable holiday experience, but not one tainted by foodborne illness.

  • “Shelf stable” foods can be safely stored at room temperature. This includes fruitcakes, country hams, and canned cranberry sauce. Be aware that not all canned goods are shelf stable. Some canned food, such as canned ham and seafood, are not safe at room temperature. These will say “Keep Refrigerated” somewhere on the label.

  • Perishable foods are likely to spoil or become unsafe if not kept refrigerated at 40°F (4°C) or below. Examples of perishable foods include meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and all cooked foods. If you are traveling with perishable foods, place them in a cooler with ice or freezer packs. Have plenty of ice or frozen gel packs on hand before starting to pack the food. If you are bringing perishable foods along to eat while traveling, or to cook at your destination, plan to keep everything on ice in your cooler.

Step 2. Pack properly

Pack your food properly so it will be safe to eat when you reach your destination.

  • Pack your cooler directly from the refrigerator or freezer. Meat and poultry may be packed while it is still frozen. This ensures that it stays colder longer (40°F/4°C or below). Also, a full cooler stays colder 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. Raw meat and poultry should be wrapped separately from cooked foods or ready-to-eat foods, such as fruits or bread. Keep the cooler closed as much as possible, so it stays cold inside. Open the cooler only when necessary, and then open and close the lid quickly.

  • Bring an appliance thermometer with you. Check the temperature inside the cooler when you reach your destination.

  • If you are traveling with hot foods, use an insulated container to help keep the food hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty it, and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated container closed to keep the food hot, at 140°F (60°C) or above.

Following these food-safety steps will keep traveling with food easy and safe, the best kind of holiday gift.  

Need more food safety information? Call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE (1-888-674-6854) or email You can also chat live with a USDA food safety specialist at AskUSDA, available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish.

Click to Enlarge

Your map to a food-safe holiday. Follow some simple food safety advice to keep you and your guests feeling festive this winter.

Proper Prepping: Just as you have a procedure for storing your holiday gifts when you get home, you should have a system for storing your food. Make sure your fridge is set at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Chill perishable groceries within two hours of shopping. Store raw meats in a container or dish to prevent juices from leaking and set below ready-to-eat foods.

Clean: Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap!

Separate: Be sure to separate raw mean from ready-to eat foods and dishes.

Don't forget: You need two thermometers. One for the fridge to ensure food is stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. One for food, particularly meat, to ensure it's cooked to the right temperature.

Always use a food thermometer to check that different holiday meats have been cooked to the right internal temperature.

  • Ground beef: 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Veal: 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Duck: 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Pork: 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Turkey: 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Lamb: 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Goose: 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Steak: 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

Don't forget resting time! Beef, veal, lamb, and pork should rest for 3 minutes before carving or consuming.

Hitting the road: If you're bringing a dish to a get-together with coworkers, family, or friends this holiday season, make sure you are transporting food safely. Keep cold food cold: When transporting cold dishes, place items in a cooler with ice or gel packs to keep food at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep hot foods hot: Keep hot foods at or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit by wrapping dishes in insulation bags or towels and newspaper.

Danger Zone: Do not enter. Perishable food kept in the danger Zone (between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit) for longer than 2 hours should be thrown out. Exceptions to Danger Zone include ready-to-eat items like cookies, crackers, bread, and whole fruit.

For more food safety tips, go to


Share your thoughts on this blog post on Cancer.Net's Facebook and Twitter.