From fires to food, how to keep your family safe this holiday season

Thanksgiving is just a few days away.

The Hawaii Department of Health and the American Red Cross Hawaii State Chapter don’t want you to end up in the hospital.

There are several food safety tips to keep in mind before, during, and after you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal.

If you’re doing the cooking this holiday season, the DOH says safety begins before you even touch food.

“Before you start preparing food for others, make sure that you’ve had no cases of vomiting or diarrhea in the last two days, and make sure you practice good personal hygiene,” said Peter Oshiro, the Department of Health’s environmental health program manager.

To avoid getting sick, the health department says wash your hands, make sure you properly wash produce to avoid rat lungworm and other diseases, and never cross contaminate during food preparation.

We’re told all raw foods should be handled last.

“If you are going to do things at the same time, make sure you keep your raw foods on separate cutting boards, use separate knives and utensils,” Oshiro said.

The turkey is fully cooked once it reaches 165 degrees, and should be checked with a cooking thermometer.

“When you check meats with a cooking thermometer, make sure you stick it in the thickest portion of the meat,” Oshiro said. “So for turkeys, you want to do it by the leg, real close to the thigh bone or deep within the breast.”

Once dinner is done, put food away within two hours to avoid rapid bacteria growth. We’re told leftovers should be eaten in two to three days.


Department of Health cheat sheet

PLANNING. When holiday food shopping, visit the supermarket or grocery store last and do not leave perishable foods in the car. Bag raw meat separately to prevent contaminating other foods. Consider bringing a cooler with ice or ice packs to store perishable foods if you have a long drive home after grocery shopping or if you have other errands to run.

Promptly put away all groceries in your refrigerator and freezer after arriving home. Keep a thermometer in your refrigerator to ensure the temperature is maintained at 41ºF or colder.

PREPARATION. To safely thaw a frozen turkey, follow one of the following options:

  • Thaw the bird in the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days in advance of your holiday meal. This is the safest method because the turkey thaws at a consistent, safe temperature.
  • Defrost the turkey in a microwave, allow 6 minutes per pound to thaw and cook it immediately after thawing.
  • Place the turkey in a heavy bag secured with a twist tie, submerge it in a clean sink with cold water and change the water every 30 minutes. Allow between 4 to 12 hours to thaw, depending on the size of the turkey.

Always wash containers or plates that were previously used to hold or prepare raw meat to prevent contamination since bacteria may be present in the blood of raw meat. Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and ready-to-eat food. Also, prepare all raw meats at the same time separately from other foods to avoid cross contamination of ready-to-eat food.

WASH YOUR HANDS. Do not handle or prepare foods for others if you have been ill and experienced vomiting and/or diarrhea within the past two days. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before handling food and raw meats and after using the bathroom.

WASH ALL FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. Wash all fruits and vegetables under clean, running water thoroughly prior to preparation and serving.

USE A THERMOMETER WHEN COOKING MEAT. Cook all meat until juices run clear. Use a thermometer to check the temperature by inserting the probe into the thickest portion of the cooked meat. Refer to the following list for different types of meats and their proper “cook-to” temperatures:

  • Beef, veal, lamb and fish: at least 145ºF.
  • Ground beef: at least 155ºF.
  • Turkey, chicken and other poultry and stuffed foods: at least 165ºF.

USE SHALLOW CONTAINERS. When cooking large amounts of food in advance, divide cooked food into shallow containers (less than 2 inches deep) and store in the refrigerator or freezer until serving. When ready to serve, reheat foods rapidly to 165ºF. Foods may also be held hot in an oven (set at 200ºF to 250ºF) or in the refrigerator until it is served.

KEEP HOT FOODS HOT AND COLD FOODS COLD. Foods that have been cooked to the proper temperatures should be held hot at 135ºF or higher by using the oven, chaffing dishes, slow cookers or warming trays. Foods to be held cold should be kept at 41ºF or lower by nesting dishes in containers of ice. You may also portion out food in small serving trays keeping larger portions chilled or heated. Replace the small serving trays often (every 2 hours).

REMEMBER THE 2-HOUR RULE. Perishable foods should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours unless they are being held hot or held cold at proper storage temperatures.

Put away or discard any leftovers after the meal. All meats should be cut off the bone and placed in shallow containers. All other foods should also be placed in shallow containers and refrigerated promptly. Use all leftover foods within 3 to 4 days. Freeze leftovers that will not be consumed within this time frame.

Remember to practice safe food handling techniques this holiday season. Festive times call for giving and sharing delicious meals, and not sharing foodborne illness.


Food safety isn’t the only thing to keep in mind.

“Locally, cooking is the number one cause for house fires,” said Capt. David Jenkins with the Honolulu Fire Department.

It may seem simple enough, but fire officials say all it takes is a little carelessness for a Thanksgiving feast to turn into fire. That’s why the top safety tip is to pay attention to your cooking.

“Never leave cooking unattended. Even if you have to leave for a short while, turn off the stove top,” said Jenkins. “Use a timer. We all have cell phones now with a timer function, so might as well use that and remind yourself there’s something in the oven.”

If you’re cooking outdoors in an imu, HFD wants you to call 723-FIRE (3473) to let them know ahead of time when and where you’ll be lighting it as many people mistake the smoke from an imu as smoke from a real fire.

“Someone may call 911, and we also have that in our dispatch information, so we know its not necessarily an emergency,” Jenkins explained.

“Unfortunately, we have responded to fires on Thanksgiving day, which is a horrible way to spend Thanksgiving,” said Coralie Matayoshi, CEO, American Red Cross Hawaii State Chapter.

The Hawaii Red Cross says be sure not to wear loose clothing and keep flammable items away. Kids and pets should also be kept at least three feet away.

If you decide to do some Black Friday shopping, double check to make sure all appliances are off before you leave.

The Red Cross encourages people to keep a fire extinguisher nearby, and make sure you have a working fire alarm.

Fire safety tips from the American Red Cross

  1. Install a smoke alarm near your kitchen, on each level of your home, near sleeping areas, and inside and outside bedrooms if you sleep with doors closed. Use the test button to check it each month. Replace all batteries at least once a year if your smoke alarm requires it.
  2. Don’t wear loose clothing or sleeves that dangle while cooking.
  3. If you are frying, grilling or broiling food, never leave it unattended – stay in the kitchen. If you leave the kitchen for even a short period of time, turn off the stove.
  4. If you’re simmering, baking, roasting or broiling food, check it regularly.
  5. Use a timer to remind yourself that the stove or oven is on.
  6. Keep kids and pets away from the cooking area. Make them stay at least three feet away from the stove.
  7. Keep anything that can catch fire – pot holders, oven mitts, wooden utensils, paper or plastic bags, food packaging, towels or curtains – away from your stove, oven or any other appliance in the kitchen that generates heat.
  8. Clean cooking surfaces on a regular basis to prevent grease buildup.
  9. Always check the kitchen before going to bed or leaving the home to make sure all stoves, ovens, and small appliances are turned off.
  10. Consider purchasing a fire extinguisher to keep in your kitchen. Contact your local fire department to take training on the proper use of extinguishers.

Looking ahead to Christmas, be wary of your Christmas lights.

On Nov. 21, officials tell us a bulb on a string of lights hung outside Longs Drugs at Kamehameha Shopping Center started sparking and smoking, triggering the store to evacuate as a precaution.

There were no major damage and no one was hurt, but firefighters warn you should always be extra cautious.

“With holiday lights, stringing up extra lights, follow all the precautions for stringing the lights. Don’t overload any circuits,” Jenkins said. “We don’t want anyone harmed or hurt at any time, but definitely during the holidays where there’s more potential of things happening where people get hurt. People need to realize these tips are not just to educate, but act upon.”


Fire safety tips while cooking during the holiday season from the Honolulu Fire Department:

  • Remain in the kitchen while you are cooking, and keep a close watch on what you fry!  Always stay in the kitchen while frying, grilling, or broiling food.  If you have to leave the kitchen for even a short period of time, turn off the stove.  Regularly check on food that is simmering, baking, or roasting, and use a timer to remind you that you are cooking.
  • Keep things that can catch on fire, such as oven mitts, wooden utensils, food packaging, towels, and curtains, away from the cooking area.
  • Be alert when cooking.  If you are sleepy or have consumed alcohol, do not use the stove or stovetop.
  • If you have a small (grease) cooking fire on the stove and decide to fight the fire, smother the flames by sliding a lid over the pan and turning off the burner.  Leave the pan covered until it is completely cooled.  For an oven fire, turn off the heat and keep the door closed.
  • If you are cooking a turkey using a disposable aluminum pan, consider doubling up and using two pans to avoid a puncture, as dripping turkey juices can cause an oven fire.
  • The HFD and the NFPA discourage the use of turkey fryers, which are a popular cooking method on Thanksgiving Day.  Turkey fryer usage can lead to devastating burns and other injuries and can destroy property due to the large amount and high temperature of oil being used.

A favorite local holiday tradition is the preparation of kalua turkeys and other delicious dishes in an imu.  Hundreds of these underground ovens are lit every holiday season. The wood fires used to heat the imu may cause concern due to the large amount of smoke that may be produced initially.  To help make your imu a success, the HFD reminds you to observe the following county fire code requirements:

  • Obtain approval from the owner, operator, or manager of the property where you plan to light an imu fire.
  • Dig your imu where its fire cannot accidentally spread and create a fire hazard.
  • Avoid placing your imu where its smoke will blow into or across homes.
  • Notify the HFD’s Fire Communication Center prior to lighting your imu fire.  In Honolulu, the number to call is 723-FIRE (723-3473).

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