When holiday and flu season collide, it could put a kibosh on all your fun plans. From a seasoned germ-conscious foodie, here's a thoughtful primer on how to have the healthiest holidays possible, whether celebrating at home, with friends at their abodes or dining out.
The grocery store is a giant petri dish. The supermarket folks are quite aware of this and often provide complimentary wipes for your hands and to wash the contaminated cart handles that babies use as a teething device.
Try to avoid food from lower-level bulk bins where kids have a free-for-all and grab goodies with their bare (and frequently germ-infested) hands.
Dress warmly, as supermarkets tend to be huge ice boxes, especially the refrigerated and frozen food sections.
Avoid the pharmacy area of the supermarket, where sick people are waiting for their prescriptions to be filled. Even so, it's hard to avoid sneezing and coughing, but where possible, get out of the line of fire. And if you see a checker who looks under the weather, pick another line.
Home on the range
When bringing food items home from the supermarket, give your fruits and veggies a bath in castile soap and water, rinsing well, and wipe down cans and boxes with an antibacterial wipe. Wash your hands well before any food preparation, and don't have anyone who is sick cook, help prepare a meal or even set the table.
Finally, if something doesn't smell, look or taste right, my standing advice — if in doubt, toss it out.
Whether having company over or going to family or friends' homes, we can't abandon all our social contacts, but for now, adopt the Howie Mandel policy — a moratorium on handshaking, kissing and hugging. Make sure all communal dishes have serving utensils so people won't dig in with their own forks and spoons, and tell the kids that no double-dipping or sharing of drinks is allowed.
Instead of serving a variety of dips, chips, nuts and crudites (a flu-feeding frenzy with multiple hands digging in), prepare individual appetizers or hors d'oeuvres such as quesadillas, mini quiches, paninis or an assortment of sliders such as mini turkey, chicken or salmon burgers on brioche buns with Barbie-size pickles, tomatoes and other scaled-down condiments and toppings on separate plates.
Also, provide plenty of napkins and utensils to prevent finger licking and other uncouth and unsanitary gestures.
Tips on dining out
If you're not in charge of young ones, skip kid-friendly restaurants to avoid crowds and germs. It is also advisable to avoid buffets, which are open to airborne bacteria and viruses. If you're a die-hard, all-you-can-eat diner, a word of warning: After visiting the trough and before you touch anything at the table, wipe your hands with an antimicrobial.
Where possible, choose an establishment with sit-down meals versus help-yourself buffets. And 'tis the season to order your own dishes — no sharing, splitting or tasting.
My cousin has a maddening habit of not ordering dessert, but taking tastes from everyone else's. Humungo dessert platters with multiple forks so everyone can have a taste or two is not smart during flu season. Instead, ask for extra plates along with a serving utensil and dish it out.