How many times have you heard someone say “It’s just a 24-hour bug?” It’s often difficult to differentiate between a stomach bug and a food-borne illness (or “food poisoning”), ailments that cause similar symptoms. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, over 48 million people are affected by food-borne illness every year in the United States. Unfortunately, the highest incidence of some of the major food-borne illnesses, such as Salmonella and E. coli, afflict children under the age of 5. Clearly, we need to do a better job at preventing the spread of food-borne illness, particularly in children who are more vulnerable.
There are four basic food safety steps that we should all practice at home and teach our children:
- Wash. Hand-washing should be second nature for anyone who works with food. Whoever is cooking the food must wash their hands before food preparation begins, between tasks such as cutting meat and vegetables, and before sitting down to eat. All produce should be washed under cold running water before it is peeled, cut or eaten. You should also wash reusable grocery bags, which harbor bacteria that can contaminate your food.
- Separate. Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other food items in the grocery cart, in your grocery bags and in the refrigerator. A separate cutting board should be used for meats and vegetables. I buy color-coded boards to help distinguish between the two.
- Cook. Ensure you are cooking foods to their proper internal temperature. In order to do that, you need to get a good food thermometer and learn how to use it. Keep a chart of the proper internal temperature for cooked foods somewhere in the kitchen for quick and easy reference.
- Refrigerate. All refrigerated items need to be kept at 40 degrees or below to slow bacterial growth and help prevent food-borne illness. Keep internal appliance thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer for this purpose. Any leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours. The time that leftover food can sit out goes down to one hour when the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, you’ve probably heard the advice, “when in doubt, throw it out!” Here is another handy chart to help you keep track of how long you can store a variety of foods.
Children can take part in these simple steps for protecting your family from potential food-borne illnesses. Basic hand-washing is a concept all children should get used to. Your children can help sort groceries at the store and upon arrival at home – this is a favorite task for my children – just be sure they wash their hands afterward! Teach your children how to read a thermometer as another way to practice reading numbers. Older children also can help you store leftovers after each meal.
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