BPT—Today's busy families are always on the go, which means less time for shopping, preparing and eating food. However, there is one thing you can't skimp on no matter how fast you're going, and that's food safety. From grocery shopping to reheating leftovers, you can use several tips to ensure that the food you eat isn't going to make you or your family sick.
To make sure that the food you bring home is as safe and delicious as it was at the store, it's important to know the best way to pack and transport your groceries. In a video on the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) website, Jennifer McEntire, PhD, a food scientist and microbiologist offers some advice:
- Pack similar foods together in order to avoid cross contamination - the transfer of pathogens between one food to another. For example, pack produce together in one bag, and meats in another. Pack a bag of frozen foods and another one for dry goods.
- If you're a fan of reusable bags, make sure you're keeping them clean. Wipe them out, or even throw them in the washing machine on a regular basis to keep them germ free. Some reusable, thermal bags can keep foods hot or cold for up to a couple of hours, so make sure these bags are free from holes or tears. It's important to wrap meats in a disposable bag before placing them in a reusable bag in order to avoid spreading pathogens. If you can, bring two reusable bags to keep meats and produce separate.
- Whether you cook all your food for the week on Sunday or have extra left at the end of a meal, for many families, leftovers are the key to solving the problem of "what's for dinner." Some foods, like casseroles, chicken salad and foods with many different spices, can even taste better the next day once all the flavors meld together. Proper handling can ensure that leftovers keep that "first bite" taste, as well as staying delicious and bacteria-free.
- It's important to remember to keep three things in mind when it comes to leftovers: refrigerating, storing, and reheating. The video which can be found on the Food Facts page offers several tips on how to safely savor foods a second time around.
To save energy, first cool your food before placing it in the refrigerator. You can speed up the cooling process by chilling food in an ice bath or cold water, setting it in front of a fan, or dividing it into smaller portions that can be placed into shallow containers. The temperature in your refrigerator should be at 40 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) or lower. It's best to use a thermometer to make sure you have the correct temperature rather than relying on refrigerator controls and displays. The key is to store leftovers quickly, within two hours of cooking (one hour on hot summer days or in warm climates).
Thin-walled metal, glass or plastic shallow containers (no more than 2 inches deep), bags, foil and plastic wrap are ideal for storing leftovers. Cooked meat can be stored three to four days in the fridge, while uncooked ground meats, poultry and seafood will last only a day or two. Raw roasts, steaks and chops (beef, veal, lamp or pork), as well as casseroles, veggies and similar side dishes and pie can be refrigerated for three to five days. If you have a lot of leftovers, you may choose to freeze them, which completely halts bacterial activity, so food can stay safe and usable for several months. Freezer temperature should be at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius).
Using a food thermometer is the best way to ensure food is heated to a safe temperature. Most foods, especially meats, should be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius) in the center. It's safe to leave steak or other whole cuts of beef or lamb a little bit rare when you reheat them, as long as they were initially cooked at a high temperature to sear the outside and kill bacteria on the surface of the meat. Bring sauces, soups and gravies to a boil. Never reheat leftovers in crock pots, slow cookers or chafing dishes. When reheating in a microwave, use a lower power setting to reheat and to avoid overcooking.
For some fast facts for fast heating, while using the microwave oven, check out this IFT video.