Food handling and safety is a part of our daily routine that is easily overlooked. We have to assume bacteria and chemicals are present on the produce and proteins we purchase from the grocery store. From the time we get our food home to the moment we eat it, there are many opportunities for bacteria to spread into our kitchens and eventually our bodies. Vigilance in handling, preparation, and storage of ingredients as well as cooked foods greatly decreases the risk of food poisoning or other illnesses.
When looking at food safety, there are four major things to consider: clean, separate, cook, chill.
Bacteria easily spreads around our kitchen when we touch raw foods, surfaces, and utensils. Washing our hands thoroughly before and after handling any food, even just unloading groceries, is an easy way to prevent this. Always rinse fresh fruit and vegetables under running tap water, even those that you might peel in the future. Consider purchasing a “vegetables only” brush for produce with thick or rough skins. When you are finished preparing one ingredient, make sure to wash your hands and everything that ingredient touched in warm soapy water before moving on to the next.
Cross-contamination allows bacteria to move from one food or surface to another. Raw meat should be kept separate from prepared foods and vegetables both in your shopping cart and your refrigerator. Storing or thawing meat on the bottom shelf which is usually a wipeable surface prevents it from coming into contact with other foods. It is also a good idea to keep one cutting board for “meat only”; an acrylic board that is dishwasher safe works best.
Different foods become safe from bacteria when they are cooked to appropriate temperatures. An instant-read probe thermometer can be inserted into a casserole or cut of meat to make sure it’s done cooking. Color is not an accurate indication of doneness! Also, when reheating soups or sauces it’s important they come to a boil before serving.
When returning from grocery shopping or after eating a meal, it’s important to get food refrigerated as soon as possible. Cold temperatures slow the growth of bacteria, so make sure your refrigerator is at or below 40 degrees and that there is enough room for cold air to circulate. Thawing and marinating meats should be done in the refrigerator, never on the counter. You can also thaw under running water or in the microwave, but this food has to be cooked immediately. Leftovers should be divided into smaller containers and refrigerated within two hours of cooking. Food doesn’t keep as long as you might think, so check the USDA’s website for cold storage times and temperatures.
More than 200 diseases can be spread through contaminated food, leading to food poisoning as well as long-term illnesses and other health issues. Make the meals you cooks safe with proper handling, cooking, and storing of food. Your dinner guests will thank you!