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Christmas food fails and how to avoid them

From food poisoning to the family fridge breaking down.

burnt christmas chicken christmas food fails
Last updated: 06 December 2019

Whether you prefer a 'traditional' hot Christmas lunch of roast turkey with all the trimmings, or a classic Aussie seafood spread, few things are better than having your friends and family over for Christmas Day lunch.

But considering the amount of effort involved in making enough food to feed a crowd, the last thing you want is to realise you don't have enough space in the oven for that whole leg of ham, or that you left the prawns out overnight on the bench instead of sticking them in the fridge.

In the seasonal spirit of giving, CHOICE staff and members of CHOICE Community share their epic Christmas food fails* – so that we may all learn from their mistakes.

*Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
burnt chicken never cooked before

A practice run or two before the big day could help you avoid disaster.

1. Attempting something you've never made before

"I made a massive trifle that I'd never attempted before for my in-laws one Christmas in England. It had like two bottles of booze in it or something ridiculous, and the ingredients cost a fortune. 

"But something went wrong with the gelatine or setting time, and it was in the fridge for AGES, but just never ever turned into jelly. It just stayed a boozy liquid mess. So, no Christmas dessert for us that year – oops!" – Pru Engel, CHOICE audience and engagement editor

Lesson

We're all for experimenting in the kitchen, but if you're cooking for an important family occasion, you might want to do a practice run or two before the big day.

man fixing broken fridge

No one wants a broken fridge for Christmas.

2. Fridge fails to keep its cool

"Our month-old frost-free fridge showed its true colours. Overnight, it had decided to go into a 'I don't do cool' mode on Christmas Day. Just because it was in a coastal Queensland house without air con. 

"The temperature had hit the high 30s and the humidity resisted motion like trying to walk along the bottom of the pool. (Pretty much an average summer's day.) And lunch was catering for ten, while we stocked up for a few good days. 

"Perhaps it was the fridge being full of fresh food that tripped it up. Or the door being opened more than once an hour while starting the food prep the night before. 

"It appears all the moisture had frozen up the works somewhere inside, and the fridge did not know how to recover other than by pretending to work, when it was not. 

"Turning the fridge off and letting it sit half empty for most of the day seemed to work. In the meantime, there was lots of shuffling of the fresh and cold foods to ice boxes (and a trip out for ice). It put lunch back to afternoon tea time and we had to quickly change the menu based on need, and saw a heavier reliance on wine than beer." – @mark_m, CHOICE Community member

Lesson

It's unlikely you'll know when an appliance is about to break down, but it's a helpful reminder to take brand reliability into account when buying a new appliance (although that's still not a guarantee it won't ever stop working).

"A fridge isn't like other appliances," says CHOICE whitegoods expert Ashley Iredale. "While it's inconvenient and annoying when your TV packs it in, you can live without a TV. 

"A fridge, on the other hand, is essential to keeping fresh food safe, so you really can't go without one. You also stand to lose all the food that's in it – that's why reliability is so important when choosing a new fridge." 

Our article on Australia's most reliable fridge brands reveals how different brands fare over time.

man with food posioning after christmas lunch

Food poisoning: the unwanted gift that keeps on giving.

3. Food poisoning (Salmonella infection)

"Food poisoning that kicked in one hour before lunch and then infected the whole family…"  – Jen Paterson, CHOICE head of content experience

Lesson

Sadly, it's not uncommon for food poisoning to be the result of home cooking, so it's worth keeping these three basic rules in mind:

1. Avoid the temperature 'danger zone' 

Bacteria thrive at temperatures between 5°C and 60°C, so store cold food below 5°C and hot food above 60°C.

2. Avoid cross-contamination 

Always wash your hands before preparing food and wash them after handling raw meat. And don't let raw meat or juices come into contact with food that's going to be eaten uncooked. 

3. When in doubt, toss it out

It's not always obvious when food has been contaminated, especially since most food-poisoning bacteria and their toxins have no taste or smell. 

Read our guide on how to avoid food poisoning for more. 

fancy expensive meat on christmas day

If you buy a whole ham, you can store any leftovers in the freezer.

4. Pricey meat

"A constant food fail, in my opinion, is the quarter ham or half ham you buy by dollar per kilogram, and it's mostly bone. It ends up being very expensive for Christmas lunch and a few sandwiches." – @SueW, CHOICE Community member

Lesson

CHOICE Community member @syncretic weighed in with this advice: "I buy a whole ham. If you choose carefully, it's better tasting and much cheaper than the cut ham at the deli – even after allowing for the bone. 

"It gives baked ham on the day and cold cuts for the season. And when I'm getting tired of ham and the crowd has gone, I slice the lot and vacuum pack it for the freezer. It lasts very well and provides cold meat for the next few months. 

"Even cheaper is to wait until the early new year to buy a ham or half ham and freeze pack it. It will be on super special because the supermarkets know it will go out of date before it sells outside the holiday season."

rusty old broken bbq

Make sure any appliance you use still works before the big day.

5. Broken BBQ

"My brother opened his BBQ for the first time in 12 months and the whole thing was rusted to hell. And there were about 30 people who'd already come round and were waiting for food." – Anonymous CHOICE staffer

Lesson

We don't blame you for not wanting to publicly shame your brother, Anonymous, but his plight is a lesson for us all. If you haven't used your BBQ – or any appliance – for a while, make sure you give it a look over a week or two before the big day to check it's in working order. A thorough clean is a good idea, too.

champange bottle cork flying

Beware of rogue corks.

6. Glass warfare

"A memorable fail from my childhood, circa 1980. After much effort, the festive fare was spread out on the dining table, and the extended family was sitting around it ready to tuck in. 

"My dad stood and opened a bottle of champagne (sorry, Australian sparkling) using the celebratory technique of full-release flying cork. Said cork went straight into the long fluorescent light tube directly above the table. 

"The tube duly disintegrated into many, many fine particles of glass, which sprinkled down all over the now not-so-delicious Christmas repast." – @ibnoom, CHOICE Community member

Lesson

I'll admit, I didn't see this coming – clearly, neither did your dad! You can't foresee every potential food disaster, but it might be worth popping a few pre-prepared meals in the freezer for such an occasion.

strawberry santas

Sure they're cute now… not so much after sitting out in the heat.

7. Forgetting how the summer heat can affect your food

"You know those adorable little strawberry Santas that are meant to look delightful plated up on the Christmas lunch table? Well, they don't exactly hold their shape if you use whipped cream straight from a can and it's a 34-plus degree day." – Emily Swanson, CHOICE digital engagement campaigner

Lesson

Emily's learned from her mistake and suggests whipping your own cream and adding some icing sugar or cream cheese to give it more structure. We'd also recommend keeping any cream-based desserts in the fridge and only take them out when you're ready to serve them

homemade christmas cookie present

Homemade isn't always cheaper than store-bought.

8. Blowing your budget

"One year my sister tried to save money on gift-giving by making Christmas puddings and baked goods for everyone, only to go hundreds of dollars over the normal Christmas budget!" – Deirdre Smith, CHOICE content editor

Lesson

Homemade gifts – especially baked gifts – are a great, thoughtful way to lower your consumer consumption rate at Christmas. But if the main reason you're doing this is to save money, make sure you do your sums (and consider the amount of time you'll spend actually making them) first.

calling 000 for an emergency

Need a recipe? Google it. And save triple-0 for real emergencies.

9. Forgetting the recipe

"I remember some years ago the emergency services made an appeal to the public to only call 000 in the case of an actual emergency. One of the examples of incorrect calls was the case of a woman wanting to know how to cook a chook for Xmas dinner." – @Fred 123, CHOICE Community member

Lesson

Well, clearly the lesson here is don't call 000 unless it's an actual emergency! 

But in case you've misplaced your recipe and forgotten how to use Google, CHOICE home economist Fiona Mair shares her recipe for roast chicken.

How to roast a chicken

Ingredients

  • 1.6kg chicken, remove giblets, neck and interior fat, wash and dry skin well.
  • 1 lemon and garlic, both cut in half.
  • 2 tablespoons butter, softened.
  • 1 tablespoon herbs (marjoram, rosemary, thyme or sage), roughly chopped.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C, fan forced, or 210°C for a conventional oven. 

2. Place lemon and garlic inside the cavity, truss chicken legs and turn the wings under the body.

3. Combine the butter and herbs, and gently lift the skin on the breast to push the mixture under the skin. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Extra butter or olive oil can be rubbed into the skin. 

4. Put chicken breast side up on a rack in a heavy baking dish. Add a cup of water to the baking dish. 

5. Put chicken on the middle shelf, cook for 60-70 mins or until the chicken is golden brown and the juices run clear.

Fiona's cooking tips

  • Shield wings, drumsticks and parson's nose with pieces of foil half way through cooking.
  • Allow to stand covered with foil for 15 minutes, breast side down. This will let the juices run into the breast area.
  • To check if it's cooked, look between the leg and the breast – the juices should run clear and the meat should not be pink. 

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