How Safe is Your Kitchen?

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by Jeannie Versagli, RDN, CN

In my experience, I have noticed that many households are not familiar with food safety practices in their kitchen. Food safety is much more than monitoring expiration dates. Did you know that over 48 million Americans become ill each year due to improper handling of foods in the home?  

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According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food expiration dates refer to food quality, not food safety. … Best if Used By date – suggests when a product will be at its peak quality. It will still be safe to consume after the date, but the flavor, texture, and quality will start to decline.

Remember that food poisonings cannot be seen, nor do they have odors.  Leftover foods should be dated prior to being placed in the refrigerator and should not remain in the refrigerator for more than five days. Refrigerator temperatures are to be at 40 degrees F or below to keep foods safe from spoilage.  A good rule of thumb is to check the refrigerator and freezers temperatures often, to assure that they are holding food items at the proper temperatures.  Freezers should be set at zero degrees F.

Foods should not be left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.  A good practice to follow is to put foods away as soon as guests and or family members are finished with their meal to avoid any chance of the food developing foodborne illness.

There are many factors that influence food safety outcomes from washing your hands to the handling of food properly prior and during food prep, proper thawing techniques, proper cooking methods and the proper storage of leftovers and ready to cook food items. Here are food safety rules to put in place in the home to assure the kitchen is safe and free from harmful bacteria.

 Food Safety Rules for the Kitchen

      1. Wash hands between food prep and cooking steps.

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      2. Sanitize work surfaces.

      3. Use separate cutting boards for raw meats, vegetables and produce, and cooked foods.  Use plastic or nonporous cutting boards to prevent the spread of bacteria. These boards should be run through the dishwasher or washed in hot soapy water after each use.

      4. Cook foods to safe internal temperatures. See web site for guidelines for cooking meats.

      5. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

      6. Rinse all produce before using.

      7. Do not thaw meats on the counter.  Place in the refrigerator to defrost and allow 24 to 48 hours for the item to defrost.

      8. Do not cross-contaminate raw meats with fresh vegetables or fruits.  Keep cutting boards and knives separate, washing after each use so not to cause any cross-contamination to result in foodborne illnesses.

Food from animal sources are at greater risk of developing foodborne illness because they carry bacteria. Always take food safety precautions with these foods:


  • Eggs
  • Meat and poultry
  • Fish and Shellfish
  • Unpasteurized milk
  • Soft cheeses such as feta and brie, which could be unpasteurized
  • Uncooked hot dogs
  • Deli meats

Embrace Heat!

Cooking protein foods to reach the appropriate intern temperatures is vital for killing harmful bacteria for the prevention of food poisoning. Following temperature guidelines will assure that protein foods are free of harmful bacteria.  

Use a clean meat thermometer to check internal temperatures of your cooked foods to assure that meat, poultry, casseroles, and leftover foods are cooked /reheated to the appropriate internal temperatures.  

  • Cook roasts and steaks should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 F.
  • Whole poultry (chicken, turkey, duck) should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F
  • Cook ground beef (hamburger) should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F.
  • Ground chicken or turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F.
  • Fish and shellfish should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 F.
  • Casseroles should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F.
  • Leftovers should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F for at least 15 seconds.
  • Eggs should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F.

When a food item reaches its proper internal temperature, it should be held at 140 F to prevent further bacterial growth from occurring.  There is a 2-hour window that foods can remain at room temperature, but then food items need to be refrigerated.

The Danger zones for food spoilage is between 41 – 140 degrees F. It is at these temperatures that foods are most susceptible to producing food-borne bacteria, especially the protein-based foods.  Common mistakes that the households often make are…

  • Eating raw cookie dough.
  • Leaving cooked meats or soups out on the counter too cool prior to placing them in the freezer or refrigerator.  Foods should be placed in the refrigerator as soon as they are cooked if not being eaten.  Otherwise, you are increasing the chance of food bacteria to grow.
  • Washing meat, poultry, and fish prior to cooking them.
  • Defrosting meats on the counter all day long

Guidelines for safely storing foods in the refrigerator are:

  • Eggs consume 3 weeks after the sell-by date.
  • Milk consume 7 days after opening and/or sell-by date before it turns sour.
  • Fresh poultry stored in the refrigerator for no more than 2 days prior to cooking.
  • Fresh ground beef should be stored in the refrigerator for no more than 2 days.
  • For more information on the holding/storage of foods see  https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/cold-food-storage-charts

Not replacing sponges or cleaning cloths in the kitchen increases the chances for foodborne illness to spread as well. Always sanitize your sponges at least every other day and replace them every week or two for best protection against bacteria. Clean sponges by placing in the microwave oven wet and set microwave oven for 1 minute on high to sanitize sponges.  E-cloths are another option for sanitizing your work area in the kitchen and are environmentally friendly. They do not require any soaps or chemicals. Just wet the cloth and wipe clean! These cloths are 99 % effective in removing unwanted bacteria. The clothes require weekly washing and can be washed over 300 times before they need to be replaced.

Develop a cleaning schedule for your kitchen to include all your appliances – don’t forget the coffee maker, oven, toaster, and other small appliances!


We tend to not pay attention to food safety practices in the home but considering the high statistics of foodborne illness in homes annually it would be wise to implement these food safety practices.  After all, your family depends on you to keep them healthy and well.  Keeping your family safe from foodborne illness is just one more way to maintain their path to wellness.


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