Brushing up on Food Safety Basics as Kids Head Back to School

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!

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds before preparing or eating food– with soap; not just a quick rinse. And wash again after handling raw meat, poultry, fish and eggs—before you move on to the next cooking step.
  • Thoroughly rinse fruits and vegetables under running tap water before prepping or eating them—even melons and those with a peel that you’ll be tossing out (bacteria can sneak onto the edible portion when you remove the peel).
  • Do not wash poultry before cooking (even if the recipe says to do so)—it spreads bacteria around the sink, counter and utensils. Cooking poultry to a safe internal temperature of 165° is the way to kill bacteria.
  • Use hot, soapy water to wash all surfaces (including cutting boards, counters, even faucet handles) that come in contact with meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.

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.

  • Keep separate cutting boards for produce and meat/poultry/seafood. This is easier if they are different colors.
  • Keep eggs in their original carton and don’t store them in the cute egg holders on the fridge door—they stay colder in the main fridge compartment on a shelf. The “meat” and “produce” drawers are fine to use, but keep meats in individual plastic bags as well so juices don’t mingle in the drawer.
  • Never put cooked food onto a plate that held raw food. Same goes for utensils—don’t remove cooked food from the grill with the same spatula or tongs that you used to put the raw food on the grill, for example.

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:

  • Always test the food’s temperature in the thickest part, making sure you’re not touching bone.
  • Wash the thermometer with warm soapy water after each use, and especially between taking the temperatures of multiple foods.
  • When you microwave foods, always follow the cooking instructions on the package, which can include stirring it halfway through heating or letting food “rest” or “stand” for the specified amount of time after cooking—it helps the food cook more completely. As sometimes instructed, check the doneness of your microwaved food with a thermometer.

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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