In addition to maintaining good health by eating well-balanced, nutritious meals, we also need to exercise care in how we handle, store and prepare our foods at home. The American Dietetic Association offers these tips:
Wash Hands Often
Hands should be washed often in warm, soapy water throughout meal preparation – especially after handling raw meats and eggs – for at least 20 seconds to help prevent the spread of bacteria. It’s important to use soap. Water may get rid of visible dirt but not bacteria. It is estimated that proper hand washing could eliminate nearly half of all cases of food-borne illness. To make sure you’re washing for 20 seconds, sing two choruses of “Happy Birthday” while you lather up.
Using two cutting boards helps reduce your risk of cross-contamination by preventing the spread of harmful bacteria. When juices from raw meats or germs from unclean objects accidentally touch cooked or ready-to-eat foods (such as fruits or salads), cross-contamination occurs. A good tip: color-code your cutting boards. For example, use a green board for vegetables and a blue board strictly for meats.
Clean Surfaces Thoroughly
Special precaution needs to be taken after cutting raw meats on your board. First, clean thoroughly with hot soapy water, then disinfect with chlorine bleach or other sanitizing solution, and follow with a rinse in clean water. To make your own bleach solution, dilute two to three teaspoons of chlorine bleach in one quart of water.
Use a Cooking Thermometer
Harmful bacteria are destroyed when food is cooked to proper internal temperatures. A meat/cooking thermometer is the ONLY reliable way to ensure safety and determine the doneness of your food. What’s more, your meat will cook to perfection. Buy a meat thermometer and use it. In general, the thermometer should be placed in the thickest part of the food, away from bone, fat or gristle. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to calibrate (check the accuracy of) the thermometer.
Leftover foods should be cooked to 165°F. To be safe, food must be cooked to an internal temperature high enough to destroy harmful bacteria. Buy a meat thermometer and use it.
Manage the Microwave
The most popular use for microwaves is reheating leftovers; but if your microwave isn’t equipped with a turntable, you may need to take extra precautions to make sure leftover food is cooked throughout. Rotate food one-half turn midway through the heating time and give it a stir to eliminate cold spots where bacteria can survive. Then let food stand for one minute before inserting a meat thermometer to ensure food has reached the proper internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
It is safe to defrost food in both the refrigerator and the microwave. If you defrost in the refrigerator, remember to cover raw meat and place it on the bottom shelf so raw juices don’t drip onto other foods. If using the microwave oven, remember that meat thawed by microwaving must be cooked immediately afterward.
Make sure your refrigerator is set below 40°F. Refrigerating foods at a proper temperature slows the growth of bacteria and prevents food-borne illness. Monitor your refrigerator’s temperature by keeping a thermometer inside your refrigerator at all times.
Leftover foods should not be out of refrigeration for more than two hours because harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly in temperatures higher than 40°F. In hot weather (80°F or warmer), limit exposure to one hour. Believe it or not, 36 percent of people admit to eating leftover pizza from the night before—even if it hasn’t been refrigerated. Pizza, like all perishable foods, follows the two-hour rule: If pizza has been sitting at room temperature for more than two hours, toss it.
How to Keep Convenience Foods Safe
Deli Meats — Use poultry products purchased from the deli counter within 3 days of purchase, use red-meat deli products within 5 to 7 days of purchase. At-risk consumers (pregnant women, older adults, babies and people with weakened immune systems) should consult their medical practitioners for advice on consuming deli meats. For best eating quality, always reheat hot dogs before eating.
Pre-Prepared Foods — If eating from a salad bar, go early or ask for fresh batches of the items. Make sure items like egg salad, macaroni salad and potato salad are properly refrigerated below 40°. Check to make sure containers are well-packed in ice. Be sure to reheat pre-cooked foods, such as stuffed chicken breasts, pre-roasted chickens, etc., and eat them the same day you purchase them.
Canned Foods — Avoid buying canned goods that show signs of bulging, denting or leaking. Throw away any canned goods in your pantry with similar signs of bulging, denting or leaking. Store canned goods in a cool, dry place—not above the oven or under the sink. As a general rule, canned goods can be kept up to 12 months unopened. Clean the tops of cans before opening to avoid contamination of contents.
Frozen Foods — Choose frozen foods, like dinners or vegetables, from the back of the freezer case; the items in the back usually remain the coldest and most frozen. Keep frozen foods tightly wrapped at 0° F or below and date them. Do not refreeze thawed food items.
Dried or Cured Meats — Don’t buy hanging, dried or cured meat if the package is cut open. An unopened package of dried meat will keep for up to one year without refrigeration. Refrigerate after opening.