Food safety's about more than keeping your hands away from a whirring food processor blade — it means knowing how to avoid spreading bacteria, safe shopping, and more. Check out these facts on safe food preparation.
Why Food Safety Matters
Food that hasn't been prepared safely may contain bacteria like E. coli. Unsafe food can also spread food-borne illnesses like salmonellosis and Campylobacter (pronounced: kam-pye-low-bak-tur) infection. The good news is you can keep on top of bacteria and food-borne illness by playing it safe when buying, preparing, and storing food.
Start at the Supermarket
You have your shopping list in one hand and that shopping cart with the bad wheel in the other. But where should you start and how do you know which foods are safe? Take a peek at these tips:
- Make sure you put refrigerated foods in your cart last. For example, meat, fish, eggs, and milk should hit your cart after cereals, produce, and chips.
- When buying packaged meat, poultry (chicken or turkey), or fish, check the expiration date on the label (the date may be printed on the front, side, or bottom, depending on the food). Don't buy a food if it has expired or if it will expire before you plan to use it.
- Don't buy or use fish or meat that has a strong or strange odor. Follow your nose and eyes — even if the expiration date is OK, pass on any fresh food that has a strange smell or that looks unusual.
- Place meats in plastic bags so that any juices do not leak onto other foods in your cart.
- Separate any raw meat, fish, or poultry from vegetables, fruit, and other foods you'll eat raw.
- Check eggs before buying them. Make sure that none of the eggs are cracked and that they are all clean. Eggs should be grade A or AA.
Don't slow down your cart for these bad-news foods:
- fruit with broken skin (bacteria can enter through the skin and contaminate the fruit)
- unpasteurized milk, ciders, or juices (they can contain harmful bacteria)
- prestuffed fresh turkeys or chickens
In the Kitchen
After a trip to the market, the first things you should put away are those that belong in the refrigerator and freezer. Keep eggs in the original carton on a shelf in the fridge (most refrigerator doors don't keep eggs cold enough).
Ready to cook but not sure how quickly things should be used, how long they should cook, or what should be washed? Here are some important guidelines:
- Raw meat, poultry, or fish should be cooked or frozen within 2 days.
- Thaw frozen meat, poultry, and fish in the refrigerator or microwave, never at room temperature.
- For best results, use a food thermometer when cooking meat and poultry.
- Cook thawed meat, poultry, and fish immediately; don't let it hang around for hours.
- Cook roasts, steaks, chops, and other solid cuts of meat (beef, veal, pork, and lamb) until the juices run clear or until the meat has an internal temperature of at least 145º F (63º C). After the meat finishes cooking, let it rest for 3 minutes at room temperature before eating it.
- Cook ground beef, veal, pork, or lamb until it's no longer pink or until it has an internal temperature of at least 160º F (71º C). Cook ground chicken or turkey to 165º F (74º C).
- Cook chicken and other turkey until it's no longer pink or until it has an internal temperature of at least 165º F (74º C). Check chicken and turkey in several places — breast meat and leg meat — to be sure it's cooked.
- Cook fish until it is opaque and flaky when separated with a fork or until it has an internal temperature of 145º F (63º C).
- Scrub all fruits and veggies with plain water to remove any pesticides, dirt, or bacterial contamination.
- Remove the outer leaves of leafy greens, such as spinach or lettuce.
- Don't let eggs stay at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
- Make sure that you cook eggs thoroughly so yokes or whites are not runny.
Even though the kitchen might look clean, your hands, the countertops, and the utensils you use could still contain lots of bacteria that you can't even see. Yuck!
To prevent the spread of bacteria while you're preparing food:
- Always wash your hands with warm water and soap before preparing any food.
- Wash your hands after handling raw meat, poultry, fish, or egg products.
- Keep raw meats and their juices away from other foods in the refrigerator and on countertops.
- Never put cooked food on a dish that was holding raw meat, poultry, or fish.
- If you use knives and other utensils on raw meat, poultry, or fish, you need to wash them before using them to cut or handle something else.
- If you touch raw meat, poultry, or fish, wash your hands. Don't wipe them on a dish towel — this can contaminate the towel with bacteria, which may be spread to someone else's hands.
- Use one cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and fish, and another board for everything else.
- When you're done preparing food, wipe down the countertops with a commercial cleaning product. Don't forget to wash the cutting board in hot, soapy water and then disinfect it with a commercial cleaning product.
- Want to make your own cleanser? You can mix together 1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) chlorine bleach and 1 quart (about 1 liter) of water and store the solution in a spray bottle. Of course, keep the solution and the ingredients out of the reach of your younger brothers and sisters!
- Wash dirty dish towels in hot water.
Storing Leftovers Safely
Your dinner was a success and you're lucky to have some to enjoy later. Here are some tips on handling leftovers:
- Put leftovers in the fridge as soon as possible. If you leave leftovers out for too long at room temperature, bacteria can quickly multiply, turning your delightful dish into a food poisoning disaster.
- Store leftovers in containers with lids that can be snapped tightly shut. Bowls are OK for storing leftovers, but be sure to cover them tightly with plastic wrap or aluminum foil to keep the food from drying out.
- Eat any leftovers within 3 to 4 days or freeze them. Don't freeze any dishes that contain uncooked fruit or veggies, hard-cooked eggs, or mayonnaise.
- If you're freezing leftovers, freeze them in one- or two-portion servings, so they'll be easy to take out of the freezer, pop in the microwave, and eat.
- Store leftovers in plastic containers, plastic bags, or aluminum foil. Don't fill bowls all the way to the top; when food is frozen, it expands. Leave a little extra space — about ½ inch (about 13 millimeters) should do it.
- Eat frozen leftovers within 2 months.
It's easy to make magic with your microwave — you can heat up or defrost stuff in an instant. Before touching that power button, be sure you know what you can microwave and how:
- Use only utensils and containers that are approved for use in the microwave.
- Although plastic plates and bowls are usually OK for use in the microwave, don't use lighter plastics like margarine tubs or cottage cheese containers. The heat can melt them, which means that some of the chemicals in the plastic can be transferred into your food.
- Most glass and ceramic containers are OK for use in the microwave. If you're not sure about glass, here's an easy test: microwave the empty container for 1 minute. If you remove it and the glass is cool, it's OK for cooking. If the glass is warm, it's unsafe.
- Waxed paper is safe for use in the microwave, but don't ever use brown paper or brown grocery bags. And never use aluminum foil!
- When covering a plate or container with plastic wrap, try to keep the plastic wrap from touching the food.
- If a food comes packaged in a foam tray, remove it from the tray and be sure to take off any plastic wrapping before microwaving. The heat can make foam trays and plastic wrapping melt. And don't reuse trays that are included with microwave dinners or other foods.
- If you're using the microwave to defrost foods, finish cooking them right away.
- If you're using the microwave to cook foods, be sure to move the food inside the dish or stir it several times so it cooks thoroughly.
- If you're using the microwave to heat leftovers or frozen meals, the food should be very hot to the touch and steaming.
- Always carefully follow the microwave directions on the box, especially the length of cooking time that's specified.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: May 2011