Back-to-school season means we’re back in the kitchen, too, packing up lunches and getting dinner on the table. It’s also the perfect time to brush up on the basics of safe food handling. From leftover expiration dates to the best way to sanitize countertops, it seems everyone has a different take on how to keep food safe to eat.
To help separate fact from fiction, the Partnership for Food Safety Education has debunked five common safety myths. Follow these tips for reducing the risk of food borne illnesses:
Leftovers are safe to eat until they smell bad.
Smell isn’t an indicator of whether or not food can be eaten, says Shelley Feist, executive director of the not for profit Partnership for Food Safety Education. The bacteria that make us sick after eating spoiled food is stealthy—it doesn’t change the smell, taste, or appearance of food.
A better rule of thumb is to toss refrigerated leftovers within three to four days. Feist says to label leftovers with the date when you pack them. You don’t need a fancy system—a sticky note or piece of masking tape will do.
When it comes to sanitizing kitchen countertops, the more bleach, the better.
“It doesn’t take a lot of bleach to do the job,” Feist says. In fact, too much bleach can be harmful rather than helpful.
To make a safe, effective sanitizing solution, combine 1 tablespoon of unscented bleach per gallon of water. Apply the diluted bleach to countertops and allow it to sit for a few minutes. Pat dry with paper towels or air dry. Feist says to use diluted bleach to clean the sink, too.
Store the solution in a tightly sealed container for up to a week—any longer, and the bleach will lose its effectiveness.
I don’t need to wash produce if I’m going to peel it.
Bacteria clings to the outside of fruits and vegetables and can easily transfer to the part that you eat. Before you peel or cut produce, always wash under cool running water and blot dry—this goes for the bananas and oranges you pack in school lunches, too.
The stand time recommended for microwaveable foods is optional; it’s just included in the directions so that you don’t burn yourself.
Your food is still cooking during the stand time; it’s not a safety measure to protect your tongue from burns. “When the manufacturer puts instructions on the package, it’s because they’ve been tested in a lab,” Feist says. Heat is still moving through the food when you pull it from the microwave.
Follow cooking directions closely—especially if the dish contains raw meat or poultry. The stand time, which is usually just a couple of minutes, will ensure that it’s safe to eat.
You should not put hot food in the refrigerator.
It’s fine to put hot food directly into the refrigerator. What’s not okay is to leave perishable foods out for several hours before storing.
Bacteria grows rapidly when food is in the danger zone of temperatures—that’s between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. To keep food safe, you should refrigerate perishable foods within two hours of cooking.
If you’ve cooked a large amount of food—say, a stew—divide it into smaller portions before refrigerating so that it will cool faster.
It’s also important that your refrigerator temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Feist suggests buying an inexpensive appliance thermometer to get an accurate reading.