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Did you know that the majority of food poisonings come from home? Everyone thinks of restaurants when they get sick but Jeff Eisert, California health inspector and UC San Diego environmental health and safety consultant stated in a recent article that “throughout my years as a food safety inspector, I have seen many food poisoning cases that were attributed to food consumed at restaurants only to find that, in fact, they came from home-prepared foods. Statistics routinely show that the majority of food poisonings come from the home, and how you prepare your food has a big impact on your health.”

Below are some simple rules that will make your meal-prepping safe and allow you to get through your week food-poison free.

  1. Clean and Sanitize – food borne illness can be spread through contact so it’s essential that you wash your hands before you eat, before you assemble the salad and periodically while you are cooking. If you’re wondering where you could be going wrong, Toby Amidor, MS, RD, nutrition expert and author of The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook, recommends taking a step back and looking at every step of the meal-prep process. “Take note of what foods you’re cooking and put potentially hazardous foods like raw and cooked meats, eggs, vegetables and fruits, and cheese on your radar. These foods are prone to salmonella, a bacteria that can cause diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, and vomiting within 12 to 72 hours after coming into contact. Moral of the story: If you’re preparing chicken to put on top of your broccoli salad for the week, be sure to thoroughly clean, rinse, and sanitize your hands and workstations after handling chicken and before cooking veg, and again before moving on to your salad assembly.” And don’t forget, cleaning tools need some TLC too. Eisert’s tip: “once a week microwave your kitchen sponge on high for 2 minutes. It’s a gigantic storehouse of bacteria so you want to ensure your sponge is sanitary. Dampen the sponge beforehand so that the microwave rays can penetrate the holes in the sponge. Microwaving works better than hot water or bleach.”
  2. Organize – Organization is key when it comes to meal prep. Organizing things ensures you are correctly prepping your food and preventing food borne illnesses. “Keep a close eye on the order in which ingredients are used during the recipe process,” Eisert says. For instance, if you’re making a yogurt-based pasta salad but still need to cook and chill the pasta, don’t remove your yogurt from the refrigerator until just before you’re ready to use it.
  3. Cook to the Right Temperature – Do you own a kitchen thermometer? If you don’t, invest in one. Cooking potentially hazardous foods to the right internal temperature is one of the easiest ways to prevent bacteria from causing food poisoning. For reference, follow the Center for Disease Control (CDC) safe food guidelines below:
    • 145 degrees for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, & lamb (then allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or eating)
    • 160 degrees for ground meats, such as beef and pork
    • 165 degrees for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey
    • 165 degrees for leftovers and casseroles
  4. Store and Label properly – it’s a good idea to have durable, and easy-to-clean containers for food storage. I like using tape to put a date on when they were prepared so I have an idea of when to throw them out. A general rule of thumb is three days for salads and seafood, and up to five days for cooked meats and vegetables. Another key area Eisert and Amidor often see neglected: cooling large batches of food. “Do not allow food to sit out at room temperature for many hours to let it cool down. Divide larger batches of food into smaller containers with about two to three inches in depth, and then put it in the fridge,” Amidor says.
  5. Reheat and Re-eat – There’s a reason you have the reheat button on most microwaves: It helps get your food to the recommended 165-degree internal temperature for safety. If you’re not reheating a food (say like, a grilled chicken salad), just be sure you keep the item cooled and stored at the proper temperature (under 41 degrees) and discard it if it’s been in the “temperature danger zone” (between 41 to 140 degrees) for longer than four hours. Simply put, if you don’t have a great lunch sack with an ice pack, it’s time to bring back your lunchbox days.

The Takeaway – While these rules are not exhaustive, if you follow them more closely, you’ll prevent giving yourself or dining companions food poisoning. And don’t forget the most important tip of all: When in doubt, throw it out! No food is worth saving if you’re unsure about its safety. But when you follow these rules, you’ll waste less food and eat more of the good stuff.

Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CLT is a nutrition expert & adjunct professor. She is a nationally recognized speaker.