The holidays are approaching, and for many people that means cooking and baking for gatherings with family and friends. It’s a good time to revisit food safety practices and, perhaps, learn a few things you might not have realized can help you and your loved ones avoid food-borne illnesses.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that 48 million Americans get sick every year from food, and some of these illnesses are due to things we do in the kitchen without realizing they could make us sick.
If you have a parent or other older family member who has a physical disability or cognitive impairment, it’s a good idea to make sure they are safe from possible food safety issues.
The following are food safety guidelines from experts that can help you and your loved ones stay healthy and have a great holiday season, and beyond:
Recognize and Toss Old Food
Figuring out when food has gone bad is challenging because package dates can be confusing.
“Sell by” helps the store manage its stock; food past this date is still safe, explains Amanda Kostro Miller, a registered dietician with Smart Healthy Living, an online resource for healthy living advice and products.
“Best by” shows the date after which flavor decreases, however, it’s safe to eat after this date.
“Use by” is the date after which the product quality decreases, similar to “best by.”
“Leftovers should be used three to four days after initial preparation.”
None of that explains when food is actually unsafe, though. Registered Dietician Jenna Guadagna, of the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says, “There is no hard and fast rule. If food is being properly stored, you can use it a little past the ‘use by’ or ‘best by’ date.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it’s OK to eat food after the “use by” and “best by” dates unless it exhibits signs of spoilage, like a bad odor, off flavor, mold, discoloration or alteration in texture.
A couple of items that people too often keep for too long are butter and flour.
If you refrigerate your butter, it will last three months. If you don’t, you should use it within 10 days, according to StateFoodSafety, a food safety training and certification company.
White flour will last six to 12 months; wheat flour will last for one month, Guadagna says.
If you’re unsure about pantry items, Julie Harrington, a chef, registered dietician and co-author of The Healing Soup Cookbook says, “The general rule of thumb is that canned food has a shelf life of at least two years.”
Dented cans can contain dangerous bacteria and should be tossed “if the dent is deep enough where you finger can rest in the divot, if the dent has a sharp point or if the can is bulging,” Harrington says.
Be Smart About Leftovers
For many people, holidays bring our favorite family dishes, followed by delicious leftovers, and it can be tough to throw these out. But for food safety, adhere to Guadagna’s rule of thumb: “Leftovers should be used three to four days after initial preparation.”
Managing your leftovers or those of someone you care for is easiest with a system. Harrington recommends rotating food in the refrigerator to keep the oldest in the front to use first. She also suggests labeling and dating leftovers so you know when to throw them out. For help managing leftovers — yep, there are apps for that, such as FoodKeeper, which tells you exactly how long you can keep each item.
When you have leftovers, be careful about how long they sit out after cooking. The FDA recommends not leaving anything out for more than two hours, or one hour if the room is 90 degrees or hotter.
Leftovers are a wonderful way to save time, but it’s important to store and reheat them correctly. Guadagna recommends separating leftovers into small, shallow containers, each with a one-meal portion, and refrigerating immediately — even if the food is still hot. This reduces the growth of bacteria and ensures it cools quickly.
Never cool food on the counter before storing it; putting it away hot is safer. Storing food in small containers also means you can avoid reheating the same food repeatedly, which affects flavor. Always reheat leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thawing Food Safely
Thawing food can be a challenge. Microwave defrosting can lead to cooked edges, and refrigerator thawing can take days for large items. It’s tempting to leave food on the counter or thaw it in hot water, but the FDA says neither of these methods is safe.
According to the FDA, there are three safe thawing methods: in the microwave, in the refrigerator or in cold water. Once food is thawed it should be cooked immediately.
Harrington recommends planning ahead for large frozen items: “A large item like a turkey needs at least a full twenty-four hours per five pounds of weight if your fridge is set to forty degrees,” she says.
It’s tempting to taste food to see if it’s gone bad, but Miller cautions that taste tests are not always accurate. “Some foods may not have altered flavors” once they’re bad, she says, so use package dates if you’re unsure. The sniff test is helpful, but if food is moldy, you shouldn’t smell it because you could inhale the mold spores.
Every cook knows tasting is an important part of cooking. But this is problematic if you taste before the final cooking temperature is reached, because bacteria can still be present. Guadagna advises using a thermometer to be sure, and this safe cooking temperature chart on FoodSafety.gov can help. Don’t rely on taste or touch.
“Taste for flavor once you know the food is already cooked to the proper temperatures,” Guadagna says. Relying on looks (wiggliness or the color of the food) doesn’t ensure doneness.
Marinades add great flavor, but can be problematic if used incorrectly. Marinate in the refrigerator, never on the counter.
Once raw meat has been in the marinade, the marinade is not safe to eat. Don’t use it as a sauce or to baste the meat when cooking unless you bring it to a boil first.
Know What to Wash
You want your food and kitchen to be clean, but it can be confusing to know what you should wash and what you shouldn’t.
The FDA says not to wash any raw meat (including poultry) because doing so spreads bacteria around your kitchen. Eggs also shouldn’t be washed because they’re coated with mineral oil to protect them from bacteria, and washing could remove this.
Fruits and vegetables should be washed under running tap water (no special cleansers needed) and firm produce should be scrubbed with a brush. Even if you won’t be eating the rind or the skin, it’s important to wash it since your knife can spread bacteria from the outside to the inside.
When you prepare one food group (such as meat or vegetables) on a cutting board, make sure to wash the cutting board, utensils and the counter with hot soapy water before using the area for a different food group.
Sponges and dishtowels can harbor lots of bacteria, so wash towels in hot water and sanitize sponges in the microwave or in the dishwasher.
And don’t forget to wash your hands. Guadagna says, “Always wash your hands in warm soapy water for about twenty seconds before handling food, or in between preparing different types of foods. Do not just use hand sanitizer — warm soapy water is the best way to get hands clean.”
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