Creating dinners for your family and friends can be one of life’s greatest pleasures. But pleasure can turn to pain if any of your guests get a nasty case of food poisoning from your cooking! Same story, of course, if YOU are the unlucky victim of a foodborne illness after eating out.
But did you know that you can keep everyone at your next dinner party using this list of helpful tips? These are the exact food safety tips that any restaurant or eatery serving food must follow to ensure their diners don’t get sick eating the food.
7 Food Safety Tips
1. Beware of the Danger Zone
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service refers to temperatures between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit as the “danger zone.” Those temperatures provide a comfortable environment for bacteria to grow at staggeringly fast rates.
Hot dishes should always measure at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or over, and cold food should be held at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Use chafing dishes, warming trays and ice beds when necessary, and any leftovers headed for the fridge or to-go packages should be put away in shallow containers, so they can reach safely cool temps within two hours.
2. Use Your Thermometer
Never guess at a temperature when your health is at stake. A simple probe-style instant-read thermometer costs less than $10 and is both convenient and accurate. Use it to see when your meat is done cooking and check the mashed potatoes and stuffing on your sideboard to make sure they’re still piping hot.
3. Invest in Color-Coded Cutting Boards
Cross-contamination is a big issue in home and professional kitchens alike. If you use a cutting board to break down poultry and fail to clean it properly before using to chop onions for a salad, that salad now carries the risk for salmonella — a nasty but common bacterial disease that causes severe gastrointestinal distress.
It’s important to establish a good cleaning and sanitation routine. Sticking to cutting boards in a single color for each food group — meat on red and veggies on green, for instance — minimizes the chances of accidental transfer.
Speaking of cutting boards, there’s a long-standing myth that says plastic boards are far safer than wooden varieties, but that’s not necessarily true. Dean Cliver, a researcher at UC Davis, found that plastic cutting boards are easier to sanitize but softer in general and therefore more susceptible to knife grooves that can harbor bacteria. Your best bet is to buy cutting boards made from hardwoods, such as maple, to use for general cooking projects and save your plastic boards for meat and fish.
4. Wash Your Hands
There’s one cardinal rule in food safety: when in doubt, wash your hands. Give your hands, wrists, fingers and nails a good scrub every time you use the restroom, blow your nose, touch your hair or face, eat or drink, smoke, play with your pets, take out the garbage, switch tasks in the kitchen, handle raw meat or unwashed vegetables — basically anytime you think you should wash your hands, do it.
You don’t need antibacterial soap, either. The FDA states there’s no scientific evidence that specialty cleaners are more effective than plain soap and water. Simply lather up, rub for about 20 seconds (approximately the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice) and rinse.
5. Take Care of Your Counters
Clean hands and cutting boards don’t mean a thing if your counters are dirty. Mix a solution of equal parts apple cider vinegar and water, pour it into a spray bottle and keep it handy. It’ll work on most surfaces of your kitchen, neutralizing bacteria without leaving any sticky residue or potentially harmful chemicals. Full-strength apple cider vinegar makes a great sanitizing soak for soiled cutting boards, too.
6. Avoid Undercooked or Unpasteurized Foods
Raw cheese such as creamy brie or tangy feta is delicious with fruit or sprinkled on a cucumber and tomato salad, but these unpasteurized milk products are also more likely to cause outbreaks of food-related infections, such as listeriosis (especially dangerous for pregnant women).
Undercooked food is also risky; cook meat and poultry to the recommended temperature and only use pasteurized eggs for recipes such as hollandaise and eggnog that call for raw eggs.
7. Toss Your Sponges
A recent study published in Scientific Reports found the average kitchen sponge is teeming with 362 kinds of bacteria at a density of 45 billion per square centimeter. The problem is, all those nooks and crannies that makes sponges so absorbent also soak up and trap bacteria — which then have a nice, warm spot to breed. As you “clean,” you spread that bacteria.
If you choose to use sponges:
- Don’t use them to mop up juices from raw meat
- Replace them weekly or biweekly at most
- Clean the sponge in the dishwasher (use the heated dry cycle, too) or in the microwave (pop it in for one minute)
- Also squeeze your sponge and leave it to dry between uses
Similarly, towels used for drying hands and dishes should be replaced and laundered regularly.
Some of these tips may seem like common sense, but it’s easy to become complacent and lose sight of best practices when you’re busy rolling out cookie dough and listening to Spotify. Just remember to clean hands and your surroundings regularly, and you’ll enjoy a food- and fun-filled dinner without the need for harsh chemical cleaners or an emergency room visit.
Bart Dobek is President and Lead Food Safety Consultant at BD Food Safety Consultants LLC, a food safety training and consulting firm in Chicago. With more than 14 years of food industry experience, Dobek has worked with a wide range of FDA and USDA inspected food manufacturing establishments, including sandwiches, meats and food contact packaging.