When you are cooking food for yourself at home, do you ever worry about your food safety practices? You might.
What if you were ordering food from a restaurant and witnessed unsafe food handling? You would definitely be worried!
So what’s the difference between someone else doing something unsafe with your food and you doing something unsafe with your food? It’s the idea that you don’t know who the other person is or what they have been doing, but you know exactly what you have been doing.
Regardless of who is making the food or whom the food is being made for, there are a few food safety tips everyone should follow to avoid causing foodborne illness.
How safe food handling practices and procedures keep you safe
First, let’s talk about a case study.
In 1906, Mary Mallon was working as a cook in New York where she cooked meals for several different families. Many of them fell ill with Typhoid fever and as a result an investigation was launched.
It turned out that Mary had contracted the fever but had remained healthy and in denial about being a carrier of typhoid. She most likely caused an outbreak of the fever that made over 3,000 people ill in New York City. Mary continued cooking for people for years and kept infecting people. This led to her infamous nickname — “Typhoid Mary.”
Mary’s story is an example of someone being irresponsible with food safety. At that time, there wasn’t much information about food safety. Today, we have much greater knowledge of how to be safe around food, so we can avoid most foodborne illnesses even when cooking at home.
Whether you’re cooking for many people in a restaurant kitchen or just cooking for yourself and your family, it is important to follow the same basic principles of food safety.
The way you follow those principles might be a little different if you’re cooking at home versus in a commercial kitchen.For example, you don’t need to wear gloves in your home kitchen, but you should wear gloves while cooking in a professional setting.
The following tips will help you avoid making yourself and others sick while you are cooking meals at home.
Guideline #1: Wash your hands thoroughly and often
Handwashing seems like a basic principle that is easy to follow, but there are some very simple things that many people forget because they are in the comfort of their own home. One of the most-forgotten things is proper handwashing technique.
To wash your hands properly, lather your hands in soap and wash them under warm water for 20 seconds. Always remember that if you are sick, it is probably best to not prepare food for others. If you have to cook, be extra cautious and consider using gloves.
Guideline #2: Prevent cross-contamination
Another crucial tip that most people forget is to wash their hands every time they switch tasks. This will help prevent cross-contamination. Simple things such as checking your phone can contaminate the food you are working with.
It’s vital to stay aware of the potential harm of contaminating your hands during any part of the cooking process. Anytime you take a break to check your phone, tie your shoes, touch your face or hair, etc., you should always wash your hands.
Another basic tip for preventing cross-contamination is to avoid using the same cookware for different types of food. For example, if you use a cutting board to cut raw chicken, don’t use the same board for chopping vegetables. If you only have one set of cookware, clean and sanitize them between uses. Even though that seems obvious, in the rush to prepare food it can be easily forgotten.
Guideline #3: Don’t use food from dented cans
A less obvious but no less important guideline to keep in mind is to watch out for the dangers of botulism. Botulism is a disease that can attack the body’s nervous system and cause severe damage. Foodborne botulism can be found in dented cans or homemade canned food that has not been properly sealed.
To avoid botulism, it’s vital to not eat from cans that have dents around the lid or any large dents or punctures. If you’re canning your own food or eating food that somebody else has canned, be extra careful. Remember to use high-pressure canning methods whenever you can food.
Here are some of the signs of botulism:
- The container is leaking, bulging, or swollen
- The container looks damaged, cracked, or abnormal
- The container spurts liquid or foam when opened
- The food is discolored, moldy, or smells bad
Remember: if you are in doubt about the food, throw it out!
Guideline #4: Cook food to proper temperatures
One thing that people in commercial kitchens and those cooking at home must both do is to cook food to the right temperatures. This is incredibly valuable because if food is not cooked to the right temperatures it could spread foodborne illnesses. For example, Salmonella can spread if you don’t cook poultry to the proper temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
No matter if you are preparing food for hundreds of customers or just for you and your family, reaching the correct temperature is vital. Here are a few basic tips to make sure that your food is temperature-safe:
- Check the internal temperature of all cooked foods before eating
- Always use a properly calibrated food thermometer to check food temperature
- Be extra careful when preparing food for highly susceptible populations, including: elderly adults, young children, and nursing or pregnant mothers
- After you cook your food, remember not to leave it out longer than four hours
Guideline #5: Store food to maximize freshness
Another tip that would seem obvious but is easily forgotten is how your food is stored. When storing food in pantries and fridges there are some basic rules that will save you time, reduce your food waste, and help you avoid potential illness.
When storing food in the pantry, follow these tips to combat things such as mold and pest infestations:
- Always cover food that has been previously opened
- Make sure that the shelves are six inches off the ground
- Always be on the lookout for signs of pests, such as cockroach or mouse droppings
When storing food in the fridge, watch for mold or food that is expired or smelly. The following tips will help you keep your fridge organized:
- Establish a first-in-first-out system so that food is less likely to expire
- Don’t overfill the fridge to allow air to circulate inside the fridge
- If you’re not sure whether a food item is still good, throw it away
For more tips on refrigerator safety, check out our article about cleaning and caring for your fridge.
Cooking at home is cheaper and can be safer than eating out — if the right food safety precautions are taken. If Typhoid Mary had known everything you know now after reading this article, she likely wouldn’t have made so many people ill.
Follow these food safety tips to avoid foodborne illness and keep you and your family safe!
— Josh Wilford