It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Or is it? Full of festive decor and family traditions, the months of November and December can provide plenty to be jolly about. But they also come with their fair share of holiday health hazards.
Whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa, learn how to steer clear of unwanted accidents and keep friends and family out of harm’s way while maintaining the merry celebration for a healthier and safer time this year.
On the road
You should prepare for a long drive first by getting a good night’s sleep prior to departure, says Dr. Cara Pensabene, assistant chief medical officer at EHE International, a company that focuses on preventive care based in New York City.
“This will keep your mind sharp and will give you more emotional reserves for the arduous task that is travel during the holidays — long lines, lots of traffic, stop-and-go driving and bad weather,” she says.
If you can, travel with a partner. Having someone along with you for the ride makes driving less lonely and will help you stay focused and aware.
“With kids, make sure that everyone’s gone to the bathroom before you leave and that they have some fun, interactive activities, like car bingo or a fun audiobook, to keep them from getting bored or indulging in activities that might leave them with car sickness, like staring at a screen,” she says.
The days are shorter, so you have less daylight driving time, which is something to consider when planning your travel, Pensabene says.
“While many of us are comfortable driving in less-than-ideal conditions, err on the side of caution when planning a trip,” she says. “If you are concerned about weather, or don’t feel in the best shape to drive, don’t hesitate to delay a trip a day or so.”
Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll likely be enticed by all the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen. Avoid overindulging; it may be the holidays, but there’s no reason to make yourself sick, says Ashley Moser, who’s the site director at the Renfrew Center’s Charlotte, North Carolina, location, which is an eating disorder treatment facility.
“Often, overeating is caused by attempts to meet emotional needs through food,” Moser says. “Holidays can create stress for a variety of reasons, and food is easily accessible and soothing to some. Increasing mindfulness at meals can help people tap into physical hunger and fullness cues, helping them to avoid mindless or emotional eating at the holidays. Ensuring that meals are not skipped in preparation for holiday meals also helps to prevent overeating out of starvation or deprivation. Balance and variety are important in any meal.”
Pensabene says you can enjoy special traditions in moderation and consider creating some new traditions that may not rely as much on consuming food.
“Engage your family in a lively walk around the neighborhood to look at decorations or participate in a local holiday fun run,” she says. “Often, during the holidays, cookies and treats are left out on tables to enjoy — and this can encourage mindless snacking. Put treats away when you’re engaging in other activities, so you don’t just pick at food throughout the day.”
Careful while cooking
If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. This way, you can avoid food hazards, too.
“The biggest danger in holiday meal prep is foodborne illness,” says Dr. Warren Willey, medical director of a weight loss center and primary care office in southeast Idaho. “The best way to avoid this is fourfold. Have a head chef or chief of hand washing. This person should actively monitor everyone entering the kitchen and their hand-washing technique. Wash and literally scrub all the fruit and vegetables in lemon water. This will help remove pesticides and other potentially hazardous material from the food.
“Keep and prepare the raw meat in a separate area from the rest of the food, then thoroughly wash the area with soap and water,” Willey says. “Cook all the food that once walked, crawled, swam or flew — meat, eggs, etc. — completely using a cooking thermometer. Do not trust Grandma when she says it ‘looks done’ — test the temperature and make sure it is done.”
Regardless of the time of year, sell-by dates should be clearly marked, and packages should be fully sealed, says Michael Koeris, co-founder at food safety company Corvium in Boston.
“If you’re buying food that is prepared onsite in your grocery store, the store should be following similar safety practices to restaurants,” Koeris says. “The store should be clean, employees should be wearing and changing gloves, washing hands, using hair nets and beard nets, changing out tools and utensils between tasks. If you see an issue — like bugs, rodents or contaminated items — notify a store manager immediately.”
Social safety, pets and decor
The holiday food is properly prepared, and now you and the family are ready to dine and socialize.
“Most of the hazards on a table are relatively benign but can become exponentially more dangerous with one ingredient: alcohol,” Pensabene says. “While a drink with dinner or eggnog at a party are often considered a vital part of celebrating the season, they affect your motor skills, your reaction time and your judgment. And, like food, we tend to overindulge in alcohol during the holidays.
“It’s important that we remain mindful and accountable about our alcohol consumption, as it’s easy to lose track of how much you’ve consumed during a party.”
Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in New York City and creator of the Better Than Dieting blog, offers some additional tips to avoid common hazards during the meal and socializing.
“Get candles that are driven by batteries instead of fire, use oven mitts that come up to your elbow, and learn how to cut food with sharp knives,” Taub-Dix says. “Keeping your knives sharp actually helps you cut with less hazards.”
And Pensabene says don’t forget about the safety of your pets. “Poinsettia plants are toxic for pets, so keep them in an area where children and animals cannot reach them,” she says. “Also, double-check your holiday lights and replace them regularly. Examine wiring for any kinks or exposures before plugging them in and putting them on a tree or your house. Another idea: Put lights on a timer, so they automatically go off at a certain point every night. It’s one less thing to worry about.”