You'd think the bathroom would get top spot when it comes to germiest room in the house. But the winner -- or loser, rather -- is the kitchen, where a single bacteria cell can multiply to more than 8 million in a day, and as few as 10 cells are capable of making you sick. Ew!
So, even if you have just the right ingredients and the perfect recipe for your famed chicken cacciatore, the end product will spell disaster if your kitchen is secretly the equivalent of a hazmat area. Let's keep that kitchen clean and your family and friends healthy by following these sanitation tips.
Prep Your Cooking Area
First, clear the area where you'll be working. Move everything out of the way. That includes sponges, soap dispensers, recipe cards -- even your glass of soda, wine or sherry. Clear the entire area so that, when you chop raw meat or veggies, you won't contaminate nearby items.
Be sure to put plenty of distance between your food preparation and any other foods you normally leave in bowls on the counter, such as garlic, bananas and onions. You don't want them to come into any contact whatsoever with the food you're preparing, especially not with meats.
Before you begin chopping, clean your counter with a disinfectant. This way, if a piece flies off the cutting board while you're chopping, it lands on a clean surface and you can safely place it back with the rest of the food.
Now, it's almost time to prep the food. But first, wash your hands. By hands, we mean hands, fingernails, between the fingers and even your wrists, too. Wash with warm water and antibacterial soap for a good 20 seconds (about the equivalent of two verses of "Happy Birthday to You"). You should wash your hands before you begin, and also between handling each different food that you prep (after chopping vegetables and before and after chopping meat, for example).
You're now ready to get the food from the refrigerator, which, because you're conscious of food safety, is set around 37 degrees Fahrenheit (2.7 degrees Celsius).
Wash Your Fruits and Veggies
When you tote your fruits and vegetables home, they bring along dirt, pesticides and insects that have adhered to their surfaces. Give those healthy treats a good washing!
Rinse fresh fruits and veggies thoroughly under the faucet, even those you plan to peel, such as avocados, onions or hard squash. They still need to be washed since the contaminants on the skin can touch the parts you plan to eat as you peel and chop. To prepare vegetables that you'll cook with the skin on, such as baked potatoes, peppers and possibly carrots, hold under running water and scrub the skins vigorously with a vegetable brush.
Even if you buy bagged, pre-washed vegetables that you plan to eat cold rather than cooked, such as spinach, it's safer to give them another rinse. It can't hurt!
What can hurt is not being careful when you prepare meat. Read on to see how to prevent meat mishaps.
Handle Meat With Caution
So, here's the deal: Safe preparation of meat, poultry and even eggs is about fighting bacteria, especially salmonella, that nasty germ that can make you or your family members very, very ill, or worse. Every year, roughly 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the U.S., and that doesn't count cases that weren't diagnosed or reported. So, the number may be 30 or more times greater, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Follow these tips for meat and poultry handling:
- If you're a die-hard user of wood cutting boards (instead of plastic cutting boards), and use them for chopping meat, know that the grooves in wood cutting boards are havens for bacteria, so you'll have to take extra precautions to keep them sanitary. After every use, wash the wood cutting board with hot water and dish soap and then treat the entire surface with a bleach and water solution. Leave the solution on the board for at least 10 minutes, then thoroughly dry the board with a paper towel. Don't soak a wood cutting board in water or any other liquid, since this will cause the board to warp.
- Don't place raw meat on your kitchen counter (it will contaminate the surface) and never put cooked meat back on any dish, cutting board or surface where it sat when it was raw.
Don't Mix Raw Meats with Veggies
Never let your eggs, poultry or meat, or the juices from any of these, come into contact with other foods. For example, be very careful about using the same cutting board for meats and vegetables. If you were to cut the meat first, you'd risk contaminating the vegetables, especially if you prefer your veggies undercooked or if those veggies are meant for a salad and they won't be subjected to the high heat that kills bacteria. One solution to the problem is to cut the vegetables first. This way, you can use the same cutting board for both the vegetables and meat. Do, however, rinse the board after cutting the veggies because they may leave dirt behind.
Better yet, to completely eliminate the potential for cross-contamination, buy different color cutting boards for veggies and meats -- a red cutting board for meat preparation only, and a green cutting board solely for vegetables.
When you finish chopping your vegetables, move them to a bowl, pot or pan to isolate them and prevent contamination as you begin to chop your meat. Use a fresh clean knife and fork every time you start prepping different types of foods, or to keep things completely sanitary, always use certain utensils for certain tasks while cooking.
Disinfect Your Cooking Space
The packaging your meat came in is quite germy by the time your meal is cooked and your family has enjoyed the last of it. Even when rinsed thoroughly, the germs left on the packaging still present risks. Placing the packaging in your trash can is not ideal; you never know when a little one (or pet) is going to rifle through that bag looking for a lost toy -- and now the child and everything she touches is contaminated. Instead, rinse the packaging, wrap it up in a plastic grocery bag and place it in the freezer until you're ready to take the trash out for garbage pick-up.
Sponges and dish rags are like little germ apartment complexes -- all those crevices make perfect little homes. Don't clean your counter and cutting board with a rag and then use it to dry dishes. Don't do it! Instead, use paper towels paired with an antibacterial cleaning solution to clean your kitchen counter and sink after cooking meat. You can even use green cleaners like Method Antibacterial Kitchen Cleaner, Seventh Generation Disinfecting Multi-Surface Cleaner or Bon Ami Powder Cleanser to get the job done. Or, purchase disposable antibacterial wipes. While you're at it, clean other surfaces you or your family may have touched during food prep, such as the refrigerator, oven doors, and dials or buttons on the stove.
If you decide to use those sponges and rags, clean them often and thoroughly. You can wet the sponge and nuke it for two minutes in the microwave to kill the germs, according to WebMD, and put the rags into the washing machine set on hot, then in the dryer on high heat. And although you may keep your sponges and rags clean, you'll still want to replace them frequently.
Maintaining a sanitary kitchen isn't difficult if you know where and how germs hide and thrive. For lots more information on keeping your cooking areas clean and safe, check out the links on the next page.
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- Smith, Erin. "How to Clean a Wooden Cutting Board for Raw Chicken." Livestrong.com. July 28, 2012. http://www.livestrong.com/article/504330-how-to-clean-a-wooden-cutting-board-for-raw-chicken/
- "Food Safety for Home Cooks." South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. (July 6, 2012) http://www.scdhec.gov/environment/envhealth/food/homecooks.htm
- Mann, Denise. "Germs in the Kitchen." WebMD. (July 5, 2012) http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/germs-in-kitchen