Want to avoid severe diarrhea, fever, vomiting, and abdominal cramps that can span several days? Thought so. These are all symptoms of food-borne illness that can be caused by kitchen germs. As if the thought of those kitchen germs giving you food poisoning wasn't scary enough, the CDC estimates that every year about 76 million people in the U.S. become ill from pathogens or disease-causing substances in food -- 5,000 of whom end up dying from it.
Invisible Germs in the KitchenThe truth is you can't see or smell most of the kitchen germs that grow on your food. They don't even change the color or texture of a dish. That's one of the reasons why I am absolutely rabid about keeping the food I eat and prepare as bacteria-free as practically possible. The way I see it there are three ways that bacteria can enter our kitchens (and therefore our mouths): before, during and after kitchen preparation and cooking:
- Before: It's contaminated before we even bring the food home.
- During: it's contaminated sometime during the preparation and cooking.
- After: it's contaminated post-preparation and/or during storage.
Step 1: Keep It Clean to Control Kitchen GermsFace it, the way our mom's generation cleaned may not be the best way to keep kitchen germs from taking over. To start with a cleaner environment, here are a few tips:
- Sponges and Towels: These kitchen helpers can provide a warm and moist environment, with lots of surface area, and they're tough to really clean and sanitize. A plastic-type scrub brush makes a good alternative, possibly resisting bacteria a bit better. If you're going to use sponges and towels, wash them weekly in very hot water.
- Countertops and Tools: Before you even begin to pull the food out to prepare, make sure all utensils and countertops have been cleaned with hot, soapy water before and after use. If you want to crank the sanitizing up a notch, wash them with a diluted bleach solution of one teaspoon bleach to one quart of hot water. And if you use antibacterial wipes to clean your countertops, throw them out after one use.
- Kitchen Sinks: You know that raw meat juice that you wash off your plastic cutting board and boning knife? It travels down the sink drain and into the disposal. So it's a great idea to sanitize your sink, drain, and disposal as often as possible using a diluted bleach solution of one teaspoon bleach to one quart of hot water.
Step 2: Reduce Kitchen Germs at the Store
Step 3: Kitchen Germs and Food PrepWash your hands longer and more often than you think you should. Scrub hands together vigorously for at least 20 seconds with hot soapy water. It takes that long for the soap and scrubbing to remove some of the germs.
- Cutting Boards: Invest in three colorful plastic cutting mats, with one color for each type of food. For example, designate a green mat for cutting fruits and vegetables, a white mat for cutting fish, and a red mat for cutting up red meat products.
- Raw Meat: Don't let raw meat bacteria travel to other food in the kitchen. Discourage cross-contamination by keeping the raw meat, and any kitchen tool that comes in contact with it, completely separate from all the other food.
- Defrosting and Marinating: Marinate meat in the refrigerator -- not on the counter at room temperature. And defrost food the same way: in the refrigerator. You can also defrost food under cold running water, or in the microwave oven on the defrost setting.
- Eggs: Eating uncooked eggs presents a risk for Salmonella Enteritidis. Eliminate the risk and kill the bacteria by cooking the egg or egg-containing foods, or use pasteurized eggs. Egg-substitute products that you buy in the store are generally pasteurized and therefore don't present a risk if consumed uncooked.
- Wash Produce: Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water before eating, cutting or cooking, unless they're packaged and marked "prewashed." Produce with a tough outer skin, like melons and cucumbers, can be scrubbed with a clean produce brush and warm soapy water before you cut into them -- just in case there is bacteria on the peel.
- Cook It Thoroughly: Finally, keep in mind that no matter what, thoroughly cooking food helps destroy the bacteria.
Step 4: Post-Prep Tips to Fight Kitchen GermsAfter the feast, there are a few kitchen tips that can help keep those leftovers safe for another delicious meal:
- Time It: Bacteria can multiply quickly on cooked food left out for more than two hours at room temperature. Refrigerate items in a timely manner.
- Avoid Room Temperature: There's a good reason why the rule of thumb is to "keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot." Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees F. So it's best to keep hot cooked food at 140 degrees or higher, and cold cooked food at 40 degrees or lower.
- Fridge and Freezer Temperatures: What temperature are your refrigerator and freezer? The refrigerator should be set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower and your freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Leftovers: Store leftovers in shallow dishes (divide large portions if necessary) so they can cool down more quickly and reach the desired refrigeration temperature faster. And avoid packing your refrigerator so there is little space left. In order to keep the food at a safe temperature, cool air needs to circulate.
There you have it, four steps that can help you keep kitchen germs at bay, prevent bacteria from growing on your food, and help keep you, your family, and what you eat as healthy as possible.