We all love a good meal with people we care about, but nothing will spoil a dining memory faster than getting a food-borne illness from that meal. We often hear about food-borne illness outbreaks from chain restaurants, or the latest recall of contaminated food products. However, not enough attention is given to how we prepare, cook, cool, and store foods in our own homes. These 4 science-backed strategies are needed to ensure that home cooked meals are safe.
Strategy 1: Proper Preparation
Proper food preparation is the first step in ensuring the safety of home cooked meals. Proper preparation starts with hand-washing and good hand hygiene practices to limit the spreading of bacteria and contaminants from our hands. Aside from hand washing practices, cross-contamination in the kitchen is thought to be the primary source for the spread of pathogens during food preparation (Al-Sakkaf, 2013). To avoid cross contamination in the kitchen, utilization of separate cutting boards and knives for raw meats and fruits or vegetables is important. Sanitizing surfaces in between the preparation of meats and fruits or vegetables is also a good strategy to avoid the possible spread of pathogens like campylobacter found in raw chicken.
Strategy 2: Proper Heating
Many of us obtain our recipes from food blogs, magazines, and cookbooks but research shows that only a third of those recipes give the proper cooking temperatures for the recipes given (Chambers et al., 2013). It is vitally important to know the internal temperatures required to kill potential pathogens. A good quality thermometer can help determine the internal temperature of cooked foods. According to the USDA (2020), steak, pork, fish, and shellfish should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F. Ground meats and eggs should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160°F. Poultry, ground poultry, ham, casseroles, and all leftovers should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F.
[Image Source: USDA, 2020]
Strategy 3: Proper Cooling
Many people are aware of kitchen hygiene and cooking foods to proper temperatures. Most people are unaware of the importance of proper cooling techniques and temperatures necessary to limit the growth of bacteria. In fact, improper cooling is one of the major causes of food-borne illness outbreaks in food service establishments (Schaffner, 2015). Cooked food needs to be cooled rapidly after serving. Cooked foods should be cooled from 135°F to 70°F within 2 hours and cooled further from 70°F to 41°F within an additional 4 hours. Appropriates strategies to achieve proper cooling are to use ice, an ice bath, or an ice wand, leave the lids off foods while they are cooling, and split large pots of food or cuts of meats into smaller portions to cool faster. Restaurant leftovers should also be cooled rapidly in an open container to allow the heat to escape.
Strategy 4: Proper Storage
Proper storage of foods is the final strategy to limit food-borne illnesses. Bacteria grows efficiently between 40°F and 140°F. This is sometimes referred to as the “danger zone” (USDA, 2017). The proper refrigerator temperature for the storage of fresh meat, eggs, dairy, ready to eat items, and fresh produce is 33°F to 40°F. Raw meat and eggs should always be stored at the bottom of a refrigerator with any fresh foods or ready to eat foods stored at the top of the refrigerator to ensure that raw meat or eggs do not drip on fresh or ready to eat items. Cooked foods should be held at temperatures above 140°F, then cooled rapidly after serving. Avoiding leaving food out at room temperature is the best strategy to avoid the growth of bacteria.
[Image Source: USDA, 2017]
In conclusion, food-borne illnesses can be fatal for young children, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals (Todd, 2014). Poor sanitation and lack of temperature control of food are the primary drivers of food-borne illnesses. These science-backed food preparation, cooking, cooling, and storage strategies will help avoid food-borne illnesses and make meal-time memories positive experiences.
Al-Saffak, A. (2015). Domestic food preparation practices: a review of the reasons for poor home hygiene practices. Health Promotion International, 30(3), 427–437. https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dat051
Chambers, Godwin, S., & Terry, T. (2018). Recipes for determining doneness in poultry do not provide appropriate information based on US Government guidelines. Foods, 7(8), 126–. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods7080126
Schaffner, D. W., Brown, L. G., Ripley, D., Reimann, D., Koktavy, N., Blade, H., & Nicholas, D. (2015). Quantitative data analysis to determine best food cooling practices in U.S. restaurants. Journal of Food Protection, 78(4), 778–783. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-14-252
Todd E. C. D. (2014). Foodborne diseases: Overview of biological hazards and foodborne diseases. Encyclopedia of Food Safety, 221–242. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-378612-8.00071-8
USDA (2017). “Danger Zone” (40 °F – 140 °F). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service website https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/danger-zone-40f-140f
USDA (2020). Safe minimum internal temperature chart. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service website https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/safe-temperature-chart