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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: 11 December 2020

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

"Keen to shake things up a little, my husband decided that we should cook a whole turkey on the BBQ a couple of years ago (for the first time). 

The average turkey weighs in at about 5kg, so we decided to butterfly the whole thing, and hook up a BBQ hotplate/DIY foil-oven to get the bird fully cooked. 

We had just about everyone jumping in to monitor the BBQ, and it took about two times longer to cook than the recipe timing. The final result wasn't too bad (if you're into a late lunch of charcoaled meat), but it's not something I'd repeat again in a hurry." – Jen Paterson, CHOICE head of content experience

Lesson

We're all for experimenting in the kitchen or on the BBQ, 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. It decided to go into a 'I don't do cool' mode on Christmas Day, in a coastal Queensland house without air con. 

"The temperature had hit the high 30s and the humidity resisted motion – it was like trying to walk along the bottom of the pool. (A pretty average summer's day.) We were catering for ten, and were 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 didn't know how to recover. 

"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, with 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.

fancy expensive meat on christmas day

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

3. 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.

4. 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 of your BBQ  is a good idea, too.

dough still wrapped in cling wrap

Try not to get distracted halfway through baking.

5. Being forgetful

"One year I forgot to take the plastic wrap off my Christmas bread dough before I baked it… it actually ended up with a great look, but it was inedible." – Matthew Steen, Director, Reviews and Testing 

Lesson

It's easy to get distracted in the kitchen, especially if you're juggling recipes or entertaining guests at the same time. Other than learning from your mistakes, it can help to reread the recipe instructions at each stage. You can also set yourself a reminder on your smartphone or smart speaker, such as "Hey Google, remind me to remove the plastic wrap in 30 minutes". 

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 wine) 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 learned from her mistake and suggests whipping your own cream and adding some icing sugar or cream cheese to give it more structure. We also recommend keeping any cream-based desserts in the fridge and taking them out only 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.

man with food posioning after christmas lunch

Food poisoning: the unwanted gift that keeps on giving.

9. 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. 

calling 000 for an emergency

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

10. 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 someone 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.