5 food safety mistakes you’re probably making in your kitchen — and how to prevent them

Woman Cooking

  • Kitchen sponges are useful, but you must sanitize and replace them often.
  • Maintain separate cutting boards for meats/poultry and fruits/veggies to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Wash, rinse, and properly sanitize kitchen surfaces for optimum food safety.
  • Don’t ever wash your raw meat and poultry. Instead, cook it to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended safe minimum internal temperatures to kill bacteria that cause foodborne illness.

You’ve most likely been washing your hands pretty regularly since you were a kid. Maybe you even splash on some hand sanitizer every time you even think about touching any shared surfaces.

But there’s much more to food safety than just making sure you wash your hands before you handle your food.

Coming from a former kitchen professional certified in food safety and sanitation, here are a few mistakes you’re probably making in your kitchen, and what you can do to prevent them.

Keeping your sponge by the kitchen sink for too long

A scientific study published in the July 2017 issue of scholarly journal “Scientific Reports” spawned a flurry of panicked articles that cast your kitchen sponge as the biggest, baddest foodborne illness villain in your home.

But that’s not the whole story. In September 2017, NPR’s Michaeleen Doucleff — an experienced scientist and science journalist — spoke to Drexel University food microbiologist Jennifer Quinlan about whether washing your sponges does, in fact, kill enough harmful bacteria to be worthwhile.

The first rule of good sponge etiquette, according to Quinlan: Don’t ever use your sponge to clean up meat juice of any kind.

“If you’re dealing with raw juices from meat or poultry, you should be using paper that can be disposed of,” Quinlan told NPR.

Quinlan also advises against keeping any given sponge more than about two weeks. Frequent sponge replacement is the key to maintaining a healthy kitchen while still being able to clean every surface that your food touches.

According to the USDA, placing your sponge in your dishwasher with a heated dry cycle or putting a wet sponge in the microwave for a minute will significantly knock back (but not completely eradicate) the sponge’s bacterial population.

If you don’t mind doing a little extra laundry, you can also try keeping a rotating supply of fresh dishcloths in your kitchen. Simply use a new dishcloth every day and toss the old one in the laundry.

Not observing good cutting board sanitation

There’s no denying the visual and tactile appeal of a beautiful wood cutting board. Unfortunately though, wood cutting boards of any type are all porous surfaces  — even bamboo, although it’s less porous than other types.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them, but it does mean that they’re more difficult to keep clean and sanitary. If you use them, you need to allow yourself enough time to take good care of them to keep you and anyone you feed healthy.

Marble, plastic, and glass are all types of nonporous cutting boards you might have in your kitchen. No matter what type of board you choose, the USDA recommends having one cutting board dedicated to raw meats and nothing else. Use a separate cutting board for fresh veggies and fruits, as well as bread products.

If you buy cutting boards in sets (like those flexible cutting mats that make meal prep a breeze), you might see them color-coded or even marked with meat, fish, veggies, and poultry to help you more easily avoid cross-contamination.

One more note: If you use the professional chef’s trick of anchoring your cutting board with a damp towel to keep it from slipping on the counter, be sure to wash and sanitize that towel often. Some modern washing machines have a handy sanitize cycle that works well for towels.

Not knowing the difference between washing and sanitizing

Washing is done with hot soapy water, and is an essential step in keeping a healthy kitchen. But removing dirt, grime, and food debris from your dishes, pots, and pans is just the first step.

Next, you need to rinse your dishes thoroughly with running water to get rid of all traces of your dish soap (as well as all the grime you just scrubbed off). Besides the fact that soap tastes terrible — and can upset your stomach — it also interferes with sanitizing.

You don’t need to sanitize every single dish, kitchen tool, or utensil you use. But sanitizing cutting boards and work surfaces after giving them a proper cleaning will up your kitchen food safety standards significantly.

A simple, inexpensive bottle of bleach diluted at a rate of 1 tablespoon per gallon of water is all you need; no special equipment necessary.


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