There are so many great things about food, but unfortunately foodstuffs can also carry germs that can spoil our food or make us sick. In healthy people, it takes a lot of these germs to make us sick, but they can grow quite quickly. There is a lot that we can do to stop them though.
Aside from the obvious (don’t eat rotten food), here are my top 5 rules for food safety:
1. Keep your tools, hands, and kitchen clean
It’s important to make sure that all the things you use for cooking stay clean. All of your kitchen equipment should be washed after use, especially if it’s been used for raw meat or fish. Your worktops and even your cooker need wiping down too. You don’t need to use antibacterial cleaning products; just hot, soapy water and a clean cloth is fine.
Your hands are just as important to keep clean. Wash them before cooking and after touching things like raw meat, eggs, bins and pets. (You shouldn’t wash the meats themselves though, as this is more likely to spread germs than get rid of them.)
2. Keep different kinds of foods separate
Different kinds of foods can carry different kinds of germs, so it’s important to keep them separate from each other. Try and keep animal products separate from vegetables, and dairy products by themselves too. It’s particularly important to keep foods that are ready to eat away from foods that still need cooking. In fact, it’s best to keep raw foods on the bottom shelf of your fridge, as they can sometimes leak onto other foods. Make sure to seal up opened packets and containers, and keep all your leftovers in sealed containers.
When you’re preparing ingredients for cooking, it’s still best not to mix them. You might even want to consider having separate chopping boards for meat and seafood.
3. Cook food all the way through
From a food safety standpoint, it’s better to have food that’s over-cooked than under-cooked. There are a few exceptions – whole cuts of beef and lamb, and vegetables that can be eaten both raw and cooked will be fine a little under-done. Don’t be afraid to cut foods (especially processed meats) in half to check that they’re done in the middle.
On the other hand, it’s best to leave most ingredients in their natural state until you’re going to use them. Once you’ve chopped something up, it will start to spoil faster. If you want to pre-prepare ingredients, you’ll need to add an extra step like blanching or freezing so they stay good to use.
4. Don’t leave food out at room temperature
Foods spoil much more quickly when they’re warm, because germs can grow faster. Make sure to keep fresh ingredients chilled, and keep foods in the freezer if you’re not going to use them in the next few days.
Once you’ve cooked your food it’s important to either eat it or chill it, ideally within 1-2 hours of cooking. You can then reheat most foods, as long as you heat them all the way through and don’t leave them sitting in a warm environment. Surprisingly, it’s especially important to cook and cool rice properly, and only reheat it once.
5. Trust your nose
Most foods do start to look and smell different the longer you keep them, especially after chilling or freezing them. However, most of us can tell when something is ‘off’. Some good indicators are if the food is slimy or sour, has gas bubbles where there were none before, or you can see mould growing on the food.
Most foods also come with best before and/or use by dates. Best before dates are indicators of food enjoyability, so you can safely eat food that’s past the best before date. However use by dates are indicators of food safety, so please do pay attention to them.
These five tips should help keep both you and your food safe, and you can find more information on food safety from organisations like the Food Standards Agency (link) and the NHS (link). Even following best practices at home, it’s hard to entirely eliminate the risk of food poisoning. So you can read more on that down below.
Most cases of food poisoning are only minor. They may be unpleasant but you can treat them at home. (In fact, it’s better to stay at home so as not to pass the germs on to anyone else.)
The most common symptoms of food poisoning are vomiting and diarrhoea. The best treatment for both is to give your body plenty of rest so it can fight off any infection itself.
It’s also very important that you get plenty of water to drink. It’s best to avoid drinks with a lot of sugar in, but you may find an isotonic drink helpful. This is a drink that contains roughly the same levels of sugars and salts as your body tissues, so it can be easier for your body to process.
Isontonic drinks typically contain about 1% salt and 6% sugar. Although you can buy them, you can also make your own. My favourite is a pinch of salt (a little pile, less than a centimetre across, in the middle of a teaspoon is about right), mixed with half a (500ml) bottle of water and half fruit juice. You can also try mixing 6 teaspoons of sugar, and half a teaspoon of salt, into a litre of water.
Most of the time vomiting will get better in a couple of days, and diarrhoea within a week. Food poisoning is rarely serious, but there’s still a risk of you passing it on to other people until you’ve had no symptoms for two days. Make sure to observe good hygiene and (if you can) stay off work and out of the kitchen.
Everyone, please take care in the kitchen and look after yourselves!
This post draws on my own lab safety training and first aid experience, as well as the references below. While I make every effort to provide accurate information, I am not a medical professional. If you’re worried about your health, please consult with a licensed medical professional. :