15. Remember Bacteria Can Grow in the Refrigerator Too
Another place bacteria might be lurking is in the refrigerator. Even when you keep your eggs, meat, and seafood separate from prepared foods and produce items, it’s very easy for bacteria to end up on the shelves of your refrigerator. This is because refrigerators are not cold enough to kill bacteria. Think about how many times something like a gallon of milk is handled, set on surfaces like the counter, and then put in the fridge. Refrigerators need cleaned regularly like any other kitchen item. Deep clean your fridge every three months and any time there is a spill.
In addition to taking care of bacteria, regular cleaning stops the growth of mold and mildew. Mildew is especially common in areas of moisture. Over-filling your fridge causes mildew growth, too. The best way to clean is to take everything out of the refrigerator and store in a cooler while you’re cleaning. Then, wash all the shelves with hot, soapy water and dry them. Once clean, disinfect with a solution of 1 gallon water to 1 tablespoon of bleach. Let everything dry before putting your food back.
Some other commonly overlooked areas during kitchen clean up are places like the faucets, refrigerator and oven handles, cupboards, and trash can lids. Sanitizing these frequently-handled areas is important, especially since some of the stronger strains of bacteria like salmonella and E.coli can life on surfaces for hours and Hepatitis A lives for months. It’s important as you are cleaning and sanitizing your kitchen that you don’t forget these frequently handled areas. You should also wash your sink handles frequently while washing, especially if you touch them to turn the water on before washing your hands.
To properly remove bacteria from surfaces in the kitchen, the USDA recommends a “one-two punch” that involves first cleaning the areas and then disinfecting them. Cleaning surfaces with warm, soapy water first helps remove dirt, grease, and some bacteria. It also helps get down to the surface, so when you do disinfect it’s going to be more effective. You can use a commercially made sanitizer or make your own by diluting bleach with water. Some people also use vinegar, which is a natural disinfectant.
There are many kitchen items people might use more than once before washing them. For example, something like the can opener isn’t necessarily considered “dirty” after it’s been used to open a can. However, that can opener has come into contact with the inside and outside of can lids, plus any liquid near the top of the can. Each time that you puncture a new can, you’re also spreading bacteria. For this reason, even multi-use items should be sanitized regularly to prevent the spread of germs.
Another multi-use item people are guilty of not washing as often as they should is re-usable shopping bags. In addition to coming into contact with anything on the outside of your groceries, these shopping bags are heavily handled. They are set in shopping carts covered in germs and then set down on your counters at home. These are easy to clean, since you can just wash them after a few uses. If you are not going to wash them, however, it’s best to throw them out.
In addition to promptly storing leftover foods, it’s important that you consume these foods in a timely manner. Even when it’s tempting to throw together dinner with whatever you have, be sure you aren’t throwing together foods that are going to get your family sick. You cannot always rely on your sense of smell, taste, and sight to know when bacteria has contaminated food. Instead, it’s best to familiarize yourself with safe cold food storage times. You may also want to label certain foods, so it’s easier to keep track of how long it’s been in the refrigerator.
Many products come with sell by or best by dates, however, these aren’t always indicators of how long something will stay good. Once something is opened, air and bacteria are introduced to the food/liquid. For example, lunchmeat that isn’t opened is good for up to 2 weeks, while lunch meat from the deli or meat that has been opened should be consumed within 3-5 days. As a general guideline, you should also be sure to consume leftovers within 3-4 days of storing them in the refrigerator. Freezing foods you don’t think you will eat is also an option.