Getting the kids all set for school with new jeans, backpacks, and lunchboxes might be your focus these days, but once you’ve “cleaned up” at the back-to-school sales, consider turning your attention to cleaning up in the kitchen.
The start of a school year is a great time to jump-start healthful habits. As a mom of two teenaged children myself, I know how hectic the new school year can be, believe me. I also know you put effort into providing your family with healthful food, so shouldn’t it be safe, too? After all, nobody wants to start the school year with a foodborne illness! According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six Americans suffers from foodborne illness each year—and 128,000 of those people end up in the hospital. Young children, with their less-developed immune systems, are at greater risk than adults. Luckily, it doesn’t take enormous effort to make your food safer and reduce the risk of foodborne illness!
With a few tweaks to your food prep routines, you can keepyour child’s packed lunches safe. Check out these pointers and see how many of them you’re already doing—and which you could adopt for greater food safety.
1. Keep it clean
This goes for ourselves and our kitchens (and lunchboxes) as well as our food. Hey, we teach our children to wash their hands, so we should be doing it, too. And the good news is, according to the 2014 IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey, 91% of consumers already make hand washing a habit—and 84% are washing their cutting boards. That’s pretty good, but you know, there’s always room for improvement!
2. Be smart—keep foods apart
Even if your hands and cutting boards are clean, cross-contamination (when bacteria from one food find their way onto another food) can still occur. Keeping raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs away from other foods requires just a little thought. For example, when shopping, use the plastic bags provided near the meat counter to wrap fresh meat, poultry and seafood separately so they don’t drip on other items in your shopping cart. (By the way, washing your reusable shopping bags weekly is a good idea for minimizing bacterial contamination, too.) Check the tips to see if you need to make any adjustments in your own kitchen practices.
3. Make sure it’s really done
While we all like to think we know when our food is cooked, there is definitely room for improvement in this area for all of us. We shouldn’t rely on the way a food looks or “feels” – there are thermometers for that. According to the Food & Health Survey, only one-third of us actually use a food thermometer to check the doneness of meat and poultry items. Honestly, they aren’t difficult to use and they don’t have to be expensive. Oh, and my kids like using them, and it’s a good habit to instill in your junior cooks. Keep these tips in mind:
4. Chill out
Getting food into the refrigerator within two hours (that goes for leftovers and also raw foods from the store) is important for keeping bacterial growth down. If you have a lot of leftover food, store it in two or more shallow containers instead of one giant, deep bowl, so that it chills down quicker. And, if you’re not sure that your refrigerator is cold enough, keep a refrigerator thermometer in it—it should be set at 40° Fahrenheit or lower.
Handling school night food safety situations
You know the drill, get dinner on the table in a jiffy, clean it up quickly to make room for the homework station, and don’t forget to prep those lunches for the next day! Here are some common scenarios and ways I handle them to keep my family’s food safe (and myself sane) on busy school nights.
5. Packing lunches at night to save time in the morning
This is fine, as long as a few safety tips are followed:
1) First, always start with a clean lunchbox (wash and let it air-dry overnight, upside down, so any water drains out)
2) Pack the lunchbox, then place it into the refrigerator with the lid open (or unzipped) so the cool air circulates around the food;
3) To keep food cold, pack two cold sources (such as a frozen water bottle or juice box, and a freezer gel pack) and then “sandwich” the cold food between the two frozen items as best you can.
6. Having kids microwave their own snacks after school?
Once they reach a certain age, children can be self-sufficient in this respect, once you teach them microwave safety. First, make sure they are old enough to read, understand, and follow the package instructions, and that they can safety reach the microwave to remove hot foods without spilling them. Then, give them rules and show them the following steps for using a microwave for their afternoon snack. For example, show them:
1) How to use potholders to remove food from the microwave
2) How to open a package of heated food away from them so the steam escapes
3) How to take the food’s temperature with a food thermometer if the package instructions specify a particular temperature for the cooked food.
Also, remind kids that the package instructions to “let food rest” are there for food safety reasons—the food actually continues to cook while it rests, so they shouldn’t skip this step.
Applying these practical tips early on will put you on the track to “Straight A’s” in Food Safety this school year!
Food Safety Resources to Use throughout National Food Safety Month:
Pack a Safe Lunch 101 (Partnership for Food Safety Education)
Back to School Safety Tips for Parents (USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service)
Kitty Broihier, MS, RD, LD is a seasoned veteran of food and nutrition communications, with 25 years of experience providing food-centric scientific perspectives. Kitty has authored several cookbooks and is author of the blog NutriComm. She serves as a member of scientific advisory groups, as well as an adjunct instructor in the Dietetic Technology Department at Southern Maine Community College. She also just completed her second term as President of the Maine Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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MARCH 2016: Editor’s Note: “Marching” Toward Better Health • 3 Tips to “Savor the Flavor of Eating Right” This National Nutrition Month • 8 Spices from Around the World • Future of Food, Part II: Serving Up Meat, Over Glass • Tip o’ the Mornin’ to You: Don’t Feel Green on St. Patrick’s Day (or Any Day)
FEBRUARY 2016: Editor’s Note: Future Foods, Coming to a Plate Near You • Future of Food, Part I: Food Innovations of Tomorrow • Why You Should Check Food Labels for Potential Allergens • Super Confused About Super Foods? An Educated Consumer Is a Healthy Consumer • How Librarians Prevent the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” • Citrus: Great Fruits for Heart Health
JANUARY 2016: Editor’s Note: Gold Medals and Silver Anniversaries • Feeling List-less? Then Check Out This Litany of New Year’s Food Trends • Happy 25th Anniversary, IFIC Foundation!: Serving Up Food Insights • A History of Communication: Insights from IFIC Foundation’s Sylvia Rowe Fellows
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015: Chew on This: A Food Technologist Puts Red and Processed Meat in Perspective • Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part III: Research Funding • Training the Next Generation of Science Communicators, Part II • Achoo!: Food and Other "Prescriptions" for Surviving Cold and Flu Season • When Nutrition Gets Personal: Study Shows New Frontiers in Understanding Glycemic Response
OCTOBER 2015: Orphan Crops • Answering the Challenge of "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life" • Weeding Through the Facts on Herbicide Resistance • Rainy Day in Nashville Fails to Dampen RDs' Spirits • Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part II • Training the Next Generation of Science Communicators, Part I
SEPTEMBER 2015: 4 Clever Food Safety Hacks • Hashtags & Hyperbole • Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part I
SUMMER 2015: What's Your Health Worth?, EXPO Milano 2015, "Single Study Syndrome"
MAY 2015: Future of Food (EXPO Milano), Grilling Tips, Food & Health Survey Webcast
APRIL 2015: Food & Nutrition Lessons from Mom, Microbiome, Flowers & Food Security
MARCH 2015: Chemophobia, Fitness Trackers, Dietary Guidelines 2015
FEBRUARY 2015: Farming Cocoa for Your Valentine’s Day Chocolate, At the Heart of Fats and Oils
DECEMBER 2014/JANUARY 2015: 2015 Food Trends Forecast, Gluten & Health, Life after PHOs
NOVEMBER 2014: A Very Southern Farm Tour, Diabetes Awareness, Turkey Safety for Thanksgiving
OCTOBER 2014: RDNs for Nutrition Expertise, Nutrition Behavior Profiles, Fall Food Days
SEPTEMBER 2014: Food Safety Month, Physical Activity & Obesity, Using Video for Education
AUGUST 2014: Back-to-School Nutrition, Pesticide & Health, Sustainable Nutrition
JULY 2014: Perceptions of Food Technology, Millennial Food Preferences, Introducing the FACTS Network
MAY/JUNE 2014: Food & Health Survey, Produce Safety, Summer Grilling Tips
APRIL 2014: ASN & Processed Food, "Banned Ingredients"
MARCH 2014: Nutrition is in Bloom - Changes to the NFP, Nutrient Adequacy, Trans Fat Q&A