Even though proper hand washing is taught from a young age, the recent pandemic brought into light how many people aren’t doing it. When you are preparing food, you need to wash your hands before you get started, several times during, and after you are done. During, you should be washing your hands every time that you switch between handling food items. This means you don’t cut up vegetables and then handle raw meat. You should also wash the surfaces these foods came into contact with.
In addition to washing your own hands after food prep, your whole family should be encouraged to clean up before dinner. Proper hand washing involves getting hands wet with warm water, adding soap, and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. You should wash your palms, the backs of your hands, and under your fingernails during this time. Using a brush may be helpful to scrub under longer nails. Then, rinse with warm water before drying your hands. Supervise young kids washing their hand and be sure they are being thorough. Creating good hand washing habits when they are young makes it easier for them to follow them in the future.
Cross-contamination describes transferring bacteria from one food to another. Some common reasons this happens is because of cutting vegetables and meats on the same surfaces, bagging meat with other foods, or even storing meats too close to other foods in the refrigerator. Avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen starts when you’re at the grocery store. You should always keep seafood, raw meat, and eggs separate from all your ready-to-eat foods when bagging groceries. Additionally, don’t set meat bags on top of produce, dairy, and other fresh food items in your cart or the trunk.
Once you are home and storing your food, be sure to store meat away from other foods. It should be stored in a separate drawer or in the bottom of the fridge, where it is not going to contaminate other foods if it leaks. Additionally, you should have separate cutting boards for meat and produce items. Even washing in between doesn’t always get food germs out, especially since cutting boards usually have slices in them where knives have been used. These cut marks can also trap bacteria.
It’s easy to grab a handful of fruit and go or to forget to wash produce before cooking. However, even when you buy produce that has been washed, bagged, and sealed before it gets to the supermarket should be washed first. When you touch the outside of the bag and then handle the produce, any germs that were on the bag are now on your fruits and veggies. Produce also may be contaminated before being packaged. For example, foods like Romaine lettuce are frequently recalled because of exposure to E. coli, listeria, and other diseases.
Many stores sell organic solutions made for sanitizing fruits and vegetables. You can also wash produce using a solution of vinegar and water, though the FDA recommends gently rubbing produce for about 20 seconds under warm water. You should use a clean brush to scrub harder produce and pat it dry with a paper towel after washing. When eating lettuce, always remove the first few outer leaves to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. You should also always wash produce before cutting and avoid setting in on your cutting surface until it has been washed.
Whether you should wash your meat or not is another controversial kitchen topic. Several decades ago, it was common for people to butcher and prepare their own meat. Therefore, washing removed any leftover blood, slime, fat, and other leftover bits. In most cases, people who wash meat do it because they were taught to do it that way by older relatives. Meat prepared and packaged today does not need to be washed. It has already been cleaned of visible blood and goo. Plus, foodborne bacteria is killed during the cooking process.
Not only is it unnecessary, but research from the USDA shows washing your meat in the sink spreads bacteria anywhere contaminated water drops land. Your entire kitchen sink ends up covered in salmonella and other foodborne bacteria, as do nearby countertops, faucets, walls, and dishes. Some people also use soap or other chemicals to wash meat, but this is also dangerous and can make you sick. If you are going to use a brine, it’s okay to soak meat in a bowl. Discard of it carefully when you’re finished and properly wash and sanitize your sink and equipment.
Many people give produce a once-over before buying and look for bruises, rotten areas, and other damage. Just like you would avoid buying bruised or otherwise-compromised produce, you should also avoid buying other foods that have been compromised. Stores sometimes offer a discount on these foods, since it’s better for them to make a little money than throw the food out. Unfortunately, there’s also risks with these damaged food. Foods in damaged containers may be exposed to air and bacteria that could ultimately make your family sick.
When buying canned foods, avoid those that are dented or swollen. Swelling in foods indicates the presence of gas, which happens once food starts to spoil and go bad. Canned foods are also likely to contain botulism, which is one of the most dangerous types of foodborne illness. Heating food isn’t always enough to kill this strong bacteria, except when cooking it at a high temperature for a long period of time. You should also inspect frozen foods for freezer burn or ice crystals, which might indicate food that has been left out and re-frozen or otherwise contaminated.
Research shows that the sink in your kitchen usually contains more harmful bacteria and more fecal matter than your bathroom toilet. People use their kitchen sinks frequently in the home, whether they are preparing meals, washing dishes, or just washing off their hands. Surprisingly, all these germs linger in the sink. It’s not enough to just wash your hands over the sink or fill it with water when doing dishes. This might remove some germs, but you’re likely also adding bacteria from your hands, dishes, and dish sponge.
Your kitchen sink should be sanitized at least once per day. Use hot, soapy water and a brush to clean it before washing. You’ll also want to be sure you don’t put this same brush or cleaning sponge back in the sink once you’re done. After scrubbing, rinse the sink completely clean. Then, you’ll be ready to disinfect for stronger bacteria like salmonella. You can use a sanitizer, a disinfectant solution made of bleach and water, or another natural disinfectant if you’d like.
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.