How to Practice Food Safety and Prevent Illness

It is important to handle food properly to prevent illness. Learn the best food safety practices to keep you and your family safe.

on September 15, 2023

This blog post was written with our patients and participants in mind.

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We think about food throughout the day, but do we ever think about food safety? Probably not, and that is a problem. Foodborne illness can happen anytime and anywhere with any meal.

Foodborne illness results when we eat something contaminated with harmful bacteria. It affects millions of U.S. Americans each year. Symptoms often include diarrhea and nausea. Some cases can be so severe that they can result in hospitalization or even death.

The U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world. There are legal obligations companies must meet to protect consumers from contaminated food. That explains why you may occasionally hear about food recalls in the news. But foodborne illnesses can also happen because of the choices we make or fail to make when we prepare food.

 It is important to always handle food properly to keep us safe from illness. Read the guidelines below to make sure you and your family use best practices to avoid harmful bacteria.

How to safely handle food

Cook food thoroughly

Food safety experts recommend that you cook food to 165°F for safe consumption. A food thermometer can tell you if your food reaches 165°F.

Where you place the thermometer in your food is very important. We recommend that you place the thermometer toward the middle of your food as that is usually the last area to cook thoroughly.

If you place it in the middle and it reads 165°F or higher, then your food is safe to eat!

Do not leave hot or cold food at room temperature for more than 2 hours

Never consume food that was cooked hot or served cold if it has been left at room temperature for over 2 hours. The U.S. Department of Agriculture calls food temperatures between 40°F and 140°F the “danger zone” because bacteria grow rapidly within those temperatures.

You cannot get rid of bacteria already formed on food by reheating it in the microwave because some bacteria are heat resistant. Therefore, food left out for more than 2 hours should be thrown away or composted.

A person placing vegetables in a container into the freezer.

Handle leftovers with care

Leftovers save you money and reduce food waste, so they are a good idea! But you have to be careful. Follow these tips to make sure your leftovers do not make you sick.

  • Do not let food sit out to cool off. It is safe to store hot food in the refrigerator.
  • Leftovers stored in the refrigerator are safe to eat for 3 or 4 days. Anything past 4 days should be thrown out or composted. Store leftovers in an airtight container to reduce exposure to bacteria.
  • It is best to place leftovers in the freezer if you want to keep them longer than 4 days. Store leftovers in an airtight container and write the date so you remember when you placed them in the freezer. Learn more about how to freeze food (disponible en Espanol.)
  • Do not thaw frozen leftovers on the kitchen counter. You can thaw them in the refrigerator, microwave, or oven. Make sure your leftovers reach an internal temperature of 165°F when you reheat them.
  • It is safe to refreeze thawed food. However, if you keep previously frozen leftovers in the refrigerator, remember to throw them out or compost them after 4 days.

Explore this helpful chart from the FDA on how long you can keep leftovers (disponible en Español)

Some foods require extra caution

Food safety precautions and best practices apply to all foods, but they are especially important when you use ingredients that have a higher risk of dangerous bacteria.

There are several foods that increase your risk of food poisoning and require specific preparation methods. Click each food to learn more.

Avoid cross-contamination

Cross-contamination happens when harmful bacteria on affected foods spread to foods without bacteria. Cross-contamination occurs in several ways:

  • When juice from meat drips onto other foods.
  • When affected and unaffected foods are stored in the same container.
  • When affected and unaffected foods are prepared on the same cutting board.
  • When you touch food with unclean hands.
  • Dirty utensils or plates.

Here is how you can keep your food safe from cross-contamination:

  • Separate foods into different containers. For example, keep raw beef in one container, raw seafood in another, and raw vegetables elsewhere.
  • Position your foods so they do not drip. You can also place them in a bag or container to avoid leakage.
  • Practice good hygiene in the kitchen. Wash dirty plates, utensils, pans, and cutting boards in the dishwasher.
  • Wash your hands after you handle raw meat.
  • Keep separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables if possible.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables under water (though the safest option is to cook them.)
  • Do not rinse meat before you cook it. Rinsing meat can cause bacteria to spread in your sink.
A grocery bag of produce spilled over.

How to practice good hygiene

Hygiene is an important part of food safety. Use the tips below to maintain good hygiene in the kitchen.

Wash your hands

Handwashing is the first line of protection in food safety. Here is a step-by-step guide on the right way to wash:

  1. Wet your hands with water.
  2. Use soap to lather your hands.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds with the soap. Make sure to scrub between your fingers and fingernails.
  4. Rinse your hands to remove the soap.
  5. Use a paper towel or a clean cloth to dry your hands and turn off the faucet.

We usually remember to wash our hands before and after we cook. However, there are other times when we will need to wash up as we prepare a meal. For example, it is best to wash your hands any time you handle raw meat, eggs, or flour.

Also, make sure you wash your hands after you touch anything that carries bacteria, such as:

  • kitchen appliances and handles
  • food product packaging
  • trash or compost
  • dirty counters or utensils
  • pets
  • cell phones or laptops

And remember to always wash your hands before and after you eat!

Keep a clean kitchen

More bacteria live in your kitchen than in any other area of your home. Kitchen counters, dishcloths, sponges, and sinks can carry E. coli. Cutting boards that handle raw meat contain 200 times more fecal matter than the average toilet seat (gross but true!) The good news is that we can reduce exposure to harmful bacteria and foodborne illnesses with a clean kitchen.

Clean your kitchen counters and sink often. Use a disinfectant kitchen cleaner to wash your counters and sink at least once a day and any time after you cook.

Clean your refrigerator every couple of months. Bacteria can grow in your refrigerator, especially if you have any spoiled food in there. Bacteria can also thrive when there is cross-contamination between foods. Deep clean your refrigerator at least 3 or 4 times a year to get rid of those germs!

Clean appliance handles regularly. Meal preparation often requires several appliances. When you touch the microwave handle, an oven knob, or the sink faucet, you leave behind germs each time. Make sure to clean the areas of your appliances you touch the most!

The right food safety precautions are worth the extra time and effort because even a mild case of food poisoning can disrupt your life. Do not let harmful bacteria impact the joy you feel when you eat your favorite meals. Follow the food safety guidelines above and dine with peace of mind!