According to government estimates, about 1 in 6 Americans will get sick from a foodborne pathogen each year. In some cases, this is beyond your control — say, when you buy tainted romaine or have a restaurant meal that was handled improperly. But there are a number of things within your control. Let’s dive into the essentials for keeping your food safe whether you’re cooking at home, doing a major grocery haul, dining at your desk, packing a school lunch, or taking travel snacks to go.
Wash your hands
This should go without saying, but in case you need a reminder, wash your hands for 20 seconds both before you begin cooking and again when you’ve touched raw meats. Give your hands a final wash just before you sit down to eat.
Have a well-organized and properly cool fridge and freezer
Store raw meat, poultry, and seafood on the lowest shelf possible — ideally on a tray to catch any potential package leaks. Keep these raw items away from other foods in your fridge to avoid potential cross contamination. Also, even if your fridge comes with an egg storage holder, keep eggs in their original carton and store them on a shelf — not in the door. The door is the warmest part of your fridge so you should avoid storing milk there as well. Nut butters and condiments can sit safely on those door shelves.
Treat yourself to a handy, inexpensive thermometer to make sure your appliance is consistently in the safe temperature zone — defined at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less for the fridge and below 0 degrees for the freezer.
Handle produce with care
This goes for farmer’s market finds, too. Organic and fresh farmer’s market food isn’t an assurance of food safety, so you should handle these items just like supermarket produce. According to the FDA, there’s no need for fruit washes or soaps; plain old water is all you need. If you’re handling a tough piece of produce — like broccoli or cucumber — use a produce brush to scrub while you rinse; otherwise, just use your hands to gently rub your fruits and veggies. If you’re cutting through produce with a rind (like cantaloupe) give it a good rinse first to avoid contaminating the fruit’s flesh when you cut through the rind. After you’ve given your produce a rinse, dry it off with a paper towel or clean cloth (which will then need to be washed). This step helps further reduce bacteria that may still be present after washing.
What doesn’t need to be washed: Packaged produce that makes claims, like triple washed or ready-to-eat. In this case, washing them could expose them to pathogens in your sink. If you don’t trust that your pre-washed greens are good to go, only wash them after giving your sink and nearby countertops a good cleaning. That goes for your hands, too.
Don’t rinse poultry
Or any raw meat. If you’re following a recipe that suggests rinsing raw meat or poultry, skip that step. Any dangerous pathogens will be killed once you cook food to a proper temperature and giving your raw meat a pre-rinse might cause you to spray those germs in your sink or on your counter, which can then contaminate other foods.
Don’t reuse utensils and platters after they’ve touched raw meats and poultry
In other words, don’t put your raw burgers on a platter, carry them out to the grill, and then return them to the same platter. And don’t use the same utensil that you used to flip those burgers when you’re serving them. This is just one example, but it illustrates the point: Raw and cooked meat should never occupy the same platter and should never be touched by the same utensil.
Use a food thermometer
While this is a mandate for keeping your food safe, it’s also a game-changer for keeping your food moist and delicious. Once you use a food thermometer, you can say so long to over-dried chicken breasts that you overcooked in order to make sure they were safe to eat. It’s an inexpensive purchase that buys you peace of mind and rescues some common cooking disasters. Your poultry (including ground) and leftovers should reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit; ground beef and other ground meats: 160 degrees; pork, beef, and lamb steaks, chops, and roasts: 145 degrees. Use your thermometer at the thickest portion of the food you’re checking and be sure to wash it with soapy, hot water in between rechecks.
While food shopping
Be food safe during grocery hauls
Though you may enter the store in the fresh food section, you’re better off shopping for fresh foods and frozen foods last so you don’t expose them to room temperature longer than necessary. In the cart, keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood away from the rest of your items since the packaging might leak and contaminate your other food, even when the packaging isn’t visibly drippy. When you check out, these raw items should also be bagged separately.
Stay food safe in the car, too
If you’re running errands on the way home from your grocery haul, store your food in a cooler with ice. It shouldn’t be sitting in your trunk for more than two hours unrefrigerated on a normal day, and that timeline shrinks to an hour when it’s especially hot outside.
And if you’ve dined out and packed a doggie bag, make sure you’re heading home in that two hour window rather than, say, stopping at the multiplex for a two-and-a-half hour blockbuster.
Tote your food safely
Bringing lunch or desk side snacks? Bacteria thrive at room temperatures (well, anything between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, actually). That means if you’re brown bagging lunch or bringing some boiled eggs for your mid-day snack, you’ll need to find space in the office fridge. If that’s not an option, pack your lunch in a soft-sided sack with two frozen gel-style ice packs. The same rules apply for your child’s packed lunch. And your travel snacks. The rule of thumb: Food should not sit out for more than two hours — and make that one hour during a heat wave (above 90 degrees).
After a power outage
The USDA says your refrigerator will keep foods properly cool during an outage that lasts about four hours. During that time, resist the urge to open the fridge and freezer in order to keep precious cool air from escaping. After the four-hour window, toss the following:
- Any leftovers
- Raw meat, poultry, and seafood
- Grated cheeses (like Parmesan)
- Pre-cut fruits and veggies
For the most part, you can keep condiments, but pitch any open bottles of creamy salad dressing and sauces, like marinara sauce and fish sauce.
Your freezer stays cooler much longer — up to two days if it’s fully stocked; a half-stocked fridge will stay cool up to a day, according to the USDA. You can hang on to meats and seafood that still feel cold and have ice crystals, and you can also keep foods, like frozen pizza and waffles. Sadly, you have to toss the ice cream! (Knowing this, it’s understandable if you want to use a freezer pass to snatch it out!)
Remember: the smell test doesn't always work
Unsafe foods don’t necessarily give off a bad odor and you won’t necessarily see any signs of spoilage, either. So if you’re ever in doubt about whether something sat too long in your purse or desk or your fridge, it makes sense to toss it.
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