The savvy seven: How to protect your plate

Jun 28, 2011 at 4:09 p.m. ET

If stories of the very sustenance that’s supposed to be good for us end in a stomach-turning scary tale, then are we doomed to a life of processed, prefabbed packaged foods? The simple answer is, of course not.

Woman washing red peppers

You can do a lot to protect yourself and your family. From how you shop, select, clean, prepare, serve, store and share your plate, you'll find that navigating the food forest isn't so frightening after all.

The Fit Foody's Top 7 tips to protect your plate

1Shop with your eyes wide open

You may have your list and checked it twice, but knowing what to look for is where savvy food safety starts. Choose seafood that is properly refrigerated or iced and avoid the precooked varieties. Steer clear of canned foods that are dented and jars with broken seals, as air can contaminate the contents. With dairy items, make sure foods have been properly pasteurized, chilled, and purchased by the suggested 'enjoy by' date.

Become knowledgeable in the vocabulary of food ingredients. Read the labels on packaged foods and avoid artificial chemicals, colors, preservatives, bleached white flour, hydrogenated fats and eight syllable words. If you can't pronounce it, does it belong on your plate?

2Pick your produce wisely

Before your fruit and veggies reach you, they've likely traveled an average of 1,500 miles. The farther food travels, the more potential points of contamination. Shop for what's in season and ask your retailer or green grocer about where they buy their food.

When picking produce, avoid bruised, cut skin as this can breed bacteria and contamination. And, please, never 'sample' grapes, cherries, strawberries and other produce items in the store. They're usually never washed before you get them home and could be seething with stuff you wouldn't want to put in your mouth.

3Remember the CSCC's of food safety

According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the four basic requirements for playing it safe in the kitchen are: CLEAN -- wash hands, utensils, and cutting boards before and after contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs; SEPARATE -- keep raw meat and poultry apart from foods that won't be cooked; COOK -- use a food thermometer -- you can't tell food is cooked safely by how it looks; and, CHILL -- chill leftovers and takeout foods within two hours and keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees F or below, especially when it comes to perishables like meat, dairy and fresh fruit and veggies.

If you're not taking a direct route home from the grocery store, tote your own insulated grocery bags to help keep your bundles from going bad.

4Give your fruit and veggies a real wash

You don't just rinse your hands with water so why would you do the same with fruit and vegetables from the ground? Contaminates from handling, soils and dirt residue, chemical fertilizers and dirt can carry harmful bacteria or get trapped under non-water-soluble waxes, carrying harmful pathogens like salmonella and E. coli.

The same goes for pesticide residue. According to the FDA, you can reduce and often eliminate residues if they are present on fresh fruits and vegetables with proper treatment -- not a 10 second rinse as seen in the recent USDA report on apples. Remove the outermost leaves of lettuce and cabbage, scrub the edible skin of fruit and veggies and take two minutes to really wash them properly -- not just casually rinsed off.

Natural cleaning products formulated to remove wax and easily lift soils and dirt can also help you get the task done more effectively.

5Don't let your fowl go foul

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If you're talking about salmonella, both can be breeding grounds for bacteria, but chicken is the number one cause of food poisoning. Handling these foods with the utmost care and cooking them properly will help reduce your risk of contamination.

Clean poultry to remove the "fecal soup" -- that liquid your bird is swimming in (which accounts for up to 15 percent of your chicken's weight, by the way).

Wash your hands regularly when handling both raw chicken and eggs and avoid contact with your mouth. The interior temperature of your cooked chicken should be 165 degrees F (160 degrees F for dishes containing eggs).

6Select your seafood safely

You shouldn't smell seafood before you see it coming. If there's a strong odor or unsavory funkiness, send it back.

If you're at a restaurant, don't hesitate to ask where they get their "fresh" catches and when they came in. If you're ordering raw fish dishes or sushi, ask if it's been prepared anywhere near other raw foods, which can result in cross contamination.

Opt for wild caught seafood vs. farm raised. A big surge of the available seafood is being raised in closed quarters that can spread disease and bacteria more rampantly than line caught counterparts. Also, avoid seafood treated with STPP or sodium tripolyphosphate, a suspected neurotoxin, and fish that can carry heavy loads of mercury.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program has nifty little guides you can download on the safest seafood to eat -- and the most ocean-friendly choices.

7Chill out

With temperatures rising, heat can become a breeding ground for bacteria. If you're planning a picnic or barbecue away from home, make sure to pack a cooler and plenty of ice or ice packs. Perishable food should never sit out for more than two hours and, if the temperature is above 90 degrees F, one hour is the max.

And literally, chill out. The worst thing we could do is to shun healthy choices for fear of what they might bring. With the right handling, selection and storage of foods, you can shield yourself from most of the risk while protecting your family's plate.

More on food safety

Food safety tips for church dinners, potlucks, and family reunions
5 Food safety myths debunked
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