After any holiday party, family dinner or other gathering where food is served, there are often plenty of leftovers for the hosts and guests to enjoy later. Unfortunately, even if the food was properly cooked, leftovers can become unsafe to eat if they are not handled and stored properly.
Food poisoning is caused by harmful organisms, such as bacteria in contaminated food. Because bacteria typically don’t change the taste, smell or look of food, you can’t tell whether a food is dangerous to eat. By implementing food safety into your kitchen practices, you are protecting yourself from incidences of foodborne illness.
Based on a 2010 survey of consumers, NSF International The Public Health and Safety Organization developed the following list of food safety best practices for the home:
Not all handwashing creates equal results
It’s important to always wash hands with soap and warm water before cooking as well as after handling raw meat and poultry. Warm water is recommended because it is effective at removing grease and grime as it increases soap’s ability to penetrate dirt and oils found on the skin. Lather your hands for at least 20 seconds before rinsing off the soap and drying.
Know when to wash produce
Pre-packaged produce that is in an open package or does not specifically state it is has been pre-washed should be washed before consuming. Wash produce in a colander to help avoid cross contamination from the sink surface. It isn’t necessary to re-wash pre-packaged produce provided that the package is tightly sealed and the label indicates that it was pre-washed and is ready to eat.
Defrost foods safely
If you need to defrost food, don’t place it on the counter to thaw at room temperature. Instead, use one of the following methods:
- Place covered food in a shallow pan or on a plate on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator until thawed.
- Use a microwave to defrost. If using this method, you must finish cooking the food immediately after thawing as the cooking process has already started.
Most meats and other foods can be cooked from a frozen state, although quality may not be the same. Be sure to remove all packaging materials before placing the frozen food in a pan and set the oven for the normal temperature recommended for that item. It will take approximately 50 percent longer to cook meat or poultry that is frozen compared to defrosted.
Rely on a food thermometer rather than visual cues to determine doneness
Always use a food thermometer to ensure that meat and poultry are thoroughly cooked to the proper internal temperature as follows:
Whole or ground poultry – 165º F
Ground meats (other than poultry) – 160º F
Fresh fin fish – 145º F
Fresh pork, beef, veal – 145º F with a three-minute rest time
Rest time refers to the time the meat needs to stand without carving or consuming once it has reached a minimum safe cooking temperature. During the three minutes after meat is removed from the heat source and allowed to stand, its temperature remains constant or continues to rise, which helps destroy harmful bacteria.
Don’t rely on sight to gauge if meat or poultry is cooked to the proper temperature, as meats can change color before reaching a temperature sufficient to kill bacteria.
Refrigerate or Freeze Leftovers Promptly
Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of preparation (or one hour on days over 90º F) to reduce the chance of bacteria growing. Any perishable foods sitting out at room temperature for longer than two hours should be discarded.
Leftovers can also be immediately frozen for reheating later. While freezing stops the growth of bacteria, food quality can suffer if stored too long in the freezer
Reheat Leftovers safely
When reheating leftovers, make sure the internal temperature of the food item reaches at least 165º F before eating it. If using a microwave, stir the food periodically to help promote even reheating.
Leftovers that were frozen can be thawed in the refrigerator for reheating later. You can also use a microwave to thaw frozen leftovers if the food will be consumed right away.
Reduce Temperature of Hot Foods Quickly
It’s important to get the temperature of the leftovers down rapidly to discourage any type of bacterial growth. To speed the cooling process, try separating large quantities of leftovers into smaller containers. It is okay to place hot leftovers directly into a properly operating refrigerator, provided large quantities have been divided into shallow containers for quicker cooling. Leave hot foods partially uncovered while cooling, and then cover them completely once they reach 40º F or freeze.
Enjoy your cooking time, enjoy your meal and stay safe from food poisoning at home by following these guidelines.