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“That smells horrendous… must be something I ate.”
People who’ve been caught on public transport with the squits may have had this alarming thought. And it’s likely an experience you’re not looking to repeat any time soon.
If you cook your own food, one wrong decision can be the thin, brown line between wowing your pals at the dining table and repainting your pants on the A Train.
Aside from any embarrassing incidents, food poisoning can be really nasty and last for days. Salmonella and E. coli bacteria thank you kindly for leaving your chicken undercooked. Your guests or family may be less grateful.
Preparing a food bonanza to last you the week is a useful cost-saving habit, but make sure you put the following measures in place to keep your kitchen hygienic.
Preparing a batch of healthful, filling grub for the week is all well and good. But if it gives you 7 days of woe, all that chopping and Tupperware on a Sunday will have been for nothing.
How long can you keep chicken? At what temperature do you cook different foods? When will they let you back on the subway after the poop incident?
We’ve teamed up with several health experts to give you the lowdown on food hygiene.
Jeff Eisert, a California health inspector and UC San Diego environmental health and safety consultant, agrees:
“Throughout my years as a food safety inspector, I have seen many food poisoning cases that were attributed to food consumed at restaurants only to find that, in fact, they came from home-prepared foods.”
“Statistics routinely show that the majority of food poisonings come from the home, and how you prepare your foods has a big impact on your health.”
Thankfully, though, if you follow these five simple rules, you’ll be meal-prepping like a boss and getting through your week food-poisoning-free. Dream big and reach for the stars — it’s a good goal to have.
As a motivator, head to our page on burning diarrhea.
There’s a reason your mother always told you to wash your hands before you eat: Foodborne illness can spread when people get their mitts all over the ingredients.
(And yes, she is always right.)
We’re not just talking about a quick run under the faucet while you assemble your salads. You have to make thoroughly washing hands as regular a part of the cooking process as seasoning the heck out of it or chopping veg.
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, a nutrition expert and author of The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook, recommends taking a step back and looking at every step of the prep process.
As they say, better safe than ploppy.
(If you’re concerned about poops, learn more about what their consistency and color mean.)
Break down the whole process
Take note of what foods you’re cooking, and be sure to put potentially hazardous foods on your radar.
These could include:
- raw and cooked meats
- raw vegetables and fruits
Take extra care with these guys, unless you want a one-way ticket to Poopsville.
These foods are prone to Salmonella, a bacteria that can cause diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, and vomiting between 6 hours and 6 days after a person makes contact.
Yeah, not a welcome dinner guest. Keep an eye on your easy-to-contaminate goodies.
Moral of the story: If you’re preparing chicken to sit atop your broccoli salad throne for the week, clean, rinse, and sanitize your hands and workstations thoroughly after handling the chicken and before prepping the veg.
It is also very important to have separate cutting boards for those meat items and your raw veggies or fruits. If your cutting board is used to prepare raw meat items, it must be sanitized or grab another cutting board to chop the cooked meat.
That’s right. You need to invest in a set of color-coded cutting boards!
Bored of handwashing? Tough sh*t. Do it again before moving on to your salad assembly. You can never be too careful. You can, however, find yourself miles from a bathroom and seconds from a poopsplosion.
Nuke your sponge
Cleaning tools also need some TLC before any scrubbing takes place, even if it don’t want no scrubs.
Take Eisert’s tip: “The kitchen sponge is a large harborer of bacteria, so once a week microwave it for 2 minutes on high.”
“Make sure the sponge is damp beforehand for adequate sanitizing so that the microwave rays can penetrate the nooks and crannies of the sponge.”
“Side note: This works better than hot water or bleach.”
On a unrelated note, find out about the possible contamination dangers of chocolate.
Organization is key when it comes to meal prep, according to both Amidor and common sense.
Staying organized helps you keep your sanity (🙌 for only going to the market once a day or once a week) and prepare foods efficiently and safely.
Restore order to your kitchen
“Keep a close eye on the order in which you use ingredients during the recipe process,” Eisert says.
For instance, if you’re making a yogurt-based pasta salad but still need to cook and chill the pasta, don’t remove your yogurt from the refrigerator until just before you’re ready to use it.
We know you like looking at yogurt, but just wait.
Not the organizational type? Learn how to get sh*t done with a to-do list.
Do you own a kitchen thermometer? If you don’t, invest in one right now, unless you enjoy being stuck in the bathroom for 4 days. In that case, you can just continue asking your chicken if it needs a blanket.
(Although you may end up looking a little like this man meowing at an egg.)
Cooking potentially hazardous foods to the right internal temperature is one of the easiest ways to prevent bacteria from destroying your GI tract through food poisoning.
Crank it up!
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggest these guidelines for safe cooking temperatures:
- 145ºF (63°C) for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb (then allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or eating)
- 160ºF (71°C) for ground meats, such as beef and pork
- 165ºF (74°C) for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey
- 165ºF (74°C) for leftovers and casseroles
Amidor suggests getting a durable, easy-to-clean food storage set. By organizing, labeling, and dating prepared items, you know the length of time for which each meal is going to stay safe.
Plus, who doesn’t think Tupperware is, like, just the cutest? KonMari-ing your cooking process won’t only spark joy, it’ll also not spark diarrhea.
Timing is everything
A general rule of thumb for food storage is 3 days for salads and seafood and up to 5 days for cooked meat and veg.
To be on the safe side, however, restrict your meat’s fridge vacation to 4 days. If you don’t feel like eating it that week, send it to the freezer.
Check out our rundown of foods that will keep for a whole week.
Chill for a bit
Another key area Eisert and Amidor often see neglected: cooling large batches of food.
“Do not allow food to sit out at room temperature for many hours to let it cool down. Divide larger batches of food into smaller containers with about 2 to 3 inches in depth, and then put it in the fridge,” Amidor says.
Never put piping hot food in the fridge or freezer because it will make the unit work much harder (and create more condensation). This also means the food spends a lot more time in the temperature danger zone (see below) where bacteria grow the fastest.
Slice roasts into 2- to 3-inch pieces to allow them to cool quickly. Once the food reaches about 70ºF (21°C), the fridge can handle it.
Bringing your meals back to life is possible, but you’ve got to make sure you reheat it safely. Otherwise, all that Tupperware was for nothing. (It is cute though.)
There’s a reason most microwaves have a reheat button: It helps get your food to the recommended 165ºF (74°C) internal temperature for safety.
Avoid the danger zone
If you’re not reheating the meal, be sure you keep it cooled and stored under 41ºF (5°C) and discard it if it’s been in the “temperature danger zone” between 41 and 140ºF (5 and 60°C) for longer than 4 hours.
Simply put, if you don’t have a great lunch sack with an ice pack, it’s time to go old-school and buy a lunch box.
Here are some ideas for filling that lunch box.
Paying more attention to these rules is a surefire way to prevent Friday afternoon belly troubles. This means you can enjoy that #FriYay feeling instead of the #FriOhGoodnessIReallyNeedToPoop experience.
And don’t forget the most important tip of all: When in doubt, throw it out!
No food is worth saving if you’re unsure about its safety. Following these rules means you’ll waste less food and eat more of the good stuff.
Want more? Pick up one of our favorite kitchen gadgets under $60, and slice your prep time in half.
Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CLT is a nutrition expert, adjunct professor of nutrition and owner of a nutrition communications consulting business. She is a nationally recognized speaker and freelance writer for Fit Pregnancy, Shape, Oxygen, and Fitness Magazine. You’ll find her at ShawSimpleSwaps.com (@shawsimpleswaps) and BumpstoBaby.com (@bumpstobaby), sharing her love for food and travel, along with a friendly smile to support those #TTC.