You've probably read that your kitchen may be the dirtiest room in your home. That shouldn't be any big surprise. You use it for food preparation, and where there's food, there's bacteria. Food doesn't have to be rotten to become a breeding ground for bacteria, either. Refrigerated items that have been left at room temperature for more than two hours can become a banquet for microscopic invaders and still look and smell safe to eat. The same goes for that smudge of leftover mayo on your countertop.
But there's plenty of cause for concern. Upwards of 76 million cases of food-related illness are reported across the U.S. every year. That's from all causes, but it's still a huge figure. Maintaining a clean kitchen and handling food carefully are a couple of ways you can help keep your family safer. Those locations in your kitchen that come in direct contact with food should get the most attention. Surfaces like your kitchen countertops and sink should be cleaned every time you use them. On the next pages, we'll take a look at five ways you can keep your countertops sparkling -- and free of harmful bacteria.
That wayward gravy dribble on your countertop looks harmless, but the longer it lingers, the more dangerous it will become. A quick swipe with a paper towel isn't really going to take care of the job if you wait a while to do the honors. Even warm water and soap won't do the trick completely, although it will help. One secret to keeping bacteria in check is to eliminate spills as soon as they occur. That way bacteria won't get established in the first place.
There's a fundamental difference between cleaning and disinfecting surfaces. Cleaning removes dirt, grime, grease and some bacteria. Disinfecting kills bacteria on contact. If you let food residue dwell on your countertop, you probably have more bacteria around than a simple cleaning swipe will tackle. Don't go there. Clean spills immediately and you'll have less disinfecting to do on a regular basis. If you've ever had ants in your kitchen, you know the drill. Get rid of the scouts and you won't have an ant invasion.
You may clean your countertops using a dish cloth, paper towel or sponge. If your method reuses the same cleaning aids again and again, they can become potential breeding farms for bacteria, molds and yeasts. Sponges have the worst reputation, but kitchen dishrags come in close second.
You don't have to stop using these handy and often cost-effective aids. Just make sure to clean them after every use, dry them thoroughly between uses and replace them every couple of weeks. Your best option for cleaning sponges is to zap them in the microwave. Microwaving sponges kills 99.9 percent of bacteria. Just wet the sponge and nuke it for two and a half minutes. The sponge will be hot, so let it cool down a couple of minutes before you use it. Get in the habit of tossing dishrags in the dishwasher or washing machine every time you clean. You can also sanitize sponges and dishrags using disinfectant or a bleach solution we'll get to in just a second.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends warm, soapy water to clean countertops and other kitchen surfaces before and after food preparation. This is a cleaning and not a disinfecting measure, though. Nasty germs like salmonella, E. coli and staphylococcus can survive on surfaces for hours and even days, and sometimes, disinfecting surfaces is a better option than just cleaning them. To tackle disinfecting jobs like cleaning up areas where raw meat has been prepared, the CDC recommends using a disinfectant preparation designed for use on countertops or a weak bleach solution you can prepare yourself.
Bleach is a time honored and pretty cost effective DIY approach to disinfecting the surfaces in your kitchen. Here's a quick primer on disinfecting with bleach: Clean countertops with warm soapy water and then go over them again with a solution of 1/4 cup household bleach (5 to 6 percent) and 2 1/4 cups water. Allow treated surfaces to air dry.
If you decide to use a prepared disinfectant, read and follow the directions carefully. Most require a clean water rinse to remove chemical residues after application to food prep areas. Special note: Disinfectants should never be sprayed on or near foodstuffs.
Bacteria, mold and fungus like to grow in moist environments. Keeping your countertops dry will help make them less appealing to microbes that can make your family sick. Clean your countertops regularly, but take the extra precaution of drying them with a clean cloth after a soap and water wash. Between cleanings, wipe down areas on your countertops and around your sink where steam settles or condensation accumulates.
For some folks, the idea of using harsh chemicals to clean the kitchen just doesn't make sense. Chemicals can be toxic when not used properly. They can also be bad for the environment. They're expensive, too. In the case of bleach, even though it may be considered natural, it's still a strong chemical. When combined with ammonia (accidentally, of course), bleach produces a poisonous gas. Actually, just the fumes from undiluted bleach can cause respiratory problems. That's not even taking into account the damage bleach can do to clothes, carpeting and other textiles.
If you'd like to try a disinfectant that's a little more planet- and user-friendly than bleach (or many disinfectant products on the market), Susan Sumner, the author of Green Housekeeping, has a suggestion. Disinfect your countertops and other kitchen surfaces with a one-two punch of vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Alone, these natural ingredients are good at killing germs. Together, they're super effective. This is a two-part process:
- Place the contents of a bottle of hydrogen peroxide (3 percent strength) into a dark spray bottle. Light will destroy the peroxide, so the container has to be dark.
- Fill a second spray bottle with white vinegar.
- Wash your countertops with soap and water as you would normally.
- Now spray them with vinegar and follow up immediately with the peroxide.
- That's it. You don't even have to rinse. The vinegar smell will dissipate on its own in a few minutes.
- Don't combine the vinegar and hydrogen peroxide in a single spray bottle, though. The vinegar will convert the peroxide to pure water before it has a chance to do its job. Used separately, this dynamic duo will bubble away germs and leave your countertops clean, disinfected and ready for anything.
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