With so much attention being focused these days on what we eat – whether it’s Paleo, gluten-free, vegan or even pizza everyday – it’s easy to lose sight of how we handle and prepare our food. What we eat is, of course, always important, but the preparation and storage of our food is at least as important to our health.
In honor of National Nutrition Month in March, I thought it would be refreshing to review some of the basics of safe food handling and preparation. Some people may never have learned food safety guidelines, while others may have forgotten some of the basics. It’s easy to blame the ‘stomach flu’ for illnesses we’ve caused ourselves through a lack of food safety awareness. Although we don’t have to make our own kitchens meet restaurant food safety standards, here are some practices that can and should be implemented at home so you can get on with your healthy eating program:
- Fridge: Keep your food clean by storing meat in the plastic produce bags from the store to help prevent any meat juices dripping in your fridge. Keep items separated by category in your fridge (fruit drawer, meat drawer, etc). Remove all expired foods and clean your refrigerator regularly. I recommend using a natural cleaner, especially in the kitchen (my favorite is the 7th Generation brand).
- Utensils: Avoid cross contamination of your kitchen utensils by either using separate cutting boards and knives for produce and meat, OR starting with the produce (cleaning the board as necessary between items) and working your way to the most germy ingredient, like chicken.
- Here is an interesting twist to one thing we’ve all been taught: Do NOT wash your poultry. This is an outdated practice that actually spreads germs and bacteria all over the poultry and your sink!
- Keep everything CLEAN!
- Produce Prep: Wash fruits and veggies with water and a produce brush. There are also many all-natural produce soaps available for this purpose.
- Meat: Although meat-lovers, as well as many older cookbooks, will tell you to let your meat rise to room temperature prior to cooking for best taste, this is not a safe practice to follow. Unsafe bacteria already present can multiply as the meat sits out to warm up. Meat should be pulled out of the fridge just prior to cooking.
- Not sure what temperature your item needs to be for safe cooking? Use this Foodsafety.gov chart: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/mintemp.html
- Foods should be refrigerated or frozen within 1-2 hours of preparation.
- Meat should not be stored on the counter to thaw. As annoying as it is to need to plan in advance, the only safe method of defrosting is to move the meat from your freezer to the fridge the day before you want to use it. All other methods come with various risks because the meat doesn’t thaw evenly, and the thinnest or warmest parts can end up with rapidly-growing bacteria due to the temperature increase.
- The following link is a thorough list of items and how long each can be safely stored in your fridge or freezer: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html
- Use your freezer: Not everything stores well in the freezer but most food can be frozen in one form or another. If you are worried you may not get something cooked before it goes bad, freeze it. Just remember to cook it immediately after thawing. There’s a common misconception that freezing kills all bacteria, so people think the meat could thaw and sit for a week in the fridge before cooking.
At some point in our lives, we’ve all eaten leftover pizza that sat on the counter overnight, and most of us have been perfectly fine. Keep in mind, these are guidelines, and you will not necessarily get sick from opting not to follow them. Eventually, though, the odds will catch up with you. These recommendations are most important to be strictly followed for infants, children, elderly, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems. The following link lists which foods are of particular importance to be avoided for those groups of people: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/food-poisoning/basics/prevention/con-20031705
Although we may not all be in the high risk category for food-borne illness, it’s certainly best to avoid as many risks as possible because nobody likes the symptoms that result!
Want more info?: http://www.foodsafety.gov/