It’s the end of the day (finally!), and you’re ready to pack up your bag and head for home. Then, out of nowhere, your stomach starts grumbling. Within seconds, you're outta your chair and flying toward the toilet instead of the car/subway/train…
What could it be? Your mind begins racing to the last thing you ate: Was it the salad bar around the corner? But wait, you meal-prepped on Sunday and brought your lunch every day this week, so that couldn’t be it. Or could it?
Well, friends, we hate to break it to you, but meal prep (and cooking in general) can make you sick when you least expect it. Don't worry, you still get mad props for being on the top of your #mealprep game on Sundays, but if you’re not practicing these important food safety measures, you might be doing more harm than good.
(Food) Safety First
Jeff Eisert, 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-poison free (how's that for a weekly goal?).
Rule 1: Clean and Sanitize
There’s a reason your mother always told you to wash your hands before you eat: Foodborne illness can be spread through contact. And we're not just talking about washing hands before you assemble your salads; we're talking about washing hands periodically while you're cooking. If you’re wondering where you could be going wrong, Toby Amidor, MS, RD, nutrition expert and author of The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook, recommends taking a step back and looking at every step of the meal-prep process.
Take note of what foods you're cooking and put potentially hazardous foods like raw and cooked meats, eggs, vegetables and fruits, and cheese on your radar. These foods are prone to salmonella, a bacteria that can cause diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, and vomiting within 12 to 72 hours after coming into contact. Moral of the story: If you’re preparing chicken to put on top of your broccoli salad for the week, be sure to thoroughly clean, rinse, and sanitize your hands and workstations after handling chicken and before cooking veg, and again before moving on to your salad assembly (you can really never be too careful).
And don't forget, cleaning tools need some TLC too. Take Eisert's tip: “The kitchen sponge is a large harborer of bacteria, so once a week microwave it for two 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."
Rule 2: Organize
Organization is key when it comes to meal prep, according to Amidor and common sense. Staying organized helps you keep your sanity (*insert praise hands emoji* for only going to the market once in one day) and ensures you're preparing foods efficiently to prevent foodborne illness from developing.
"Keep a close eye on the order in which ingredients are used 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.
Rule 3: Cook to the Right Temperature
Do you own a kitchen thermometer? If you don’t, invest in one, like right now. Cooking potentially hazardous foods to the right internal temperature is one of the easiest ways to prevent bacteria from causing food poisoning. For reference, follow the Center for Disease Control (CDC) safe food guidelines below:
- 145 degrees for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb (then allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or eating)
- 160 degrees for ground meats, such as beef and pork
- 165 degrees for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey
- 165 degrees for leftovers and casseroles
Rule 4: Store and Label Properly
Amidor advises investing in a durable and easy-to-clean food storage set, because by organizing, labeling, and dating your prepared items, you know exactly how long each meal is “best by.” A general rule of thumb is three days for salads and seafood, and up to five days for cooked meats and vegetables. We err on the safe side and only give our meat four days in the fridge, and if we aren't going to eat it that week, we just freeze it.
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 two to three 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 you’ll get a higher electricity bill!). Slice roasts into two- to three-inch pieces to allow them to cool quickly. Once the food reaches about 70 degrees, the fridge can handle it.
Rule 5: Reheat and Re-eat
There’s a reason you have the reheat button on most microwaves: It helps get your food to the recommended 165-degree internal temperature for safety. If you’re not reheating a food (say like, a grilled chicken salad), just be sure you keep the item cooled and stored at the proper temperature (under 41 degrees) and discard it if it’s been in the “temperature danger zone” (between 41 to 140 degrees) for longer than four hours. Simply put, if you don’t have a great lunch sack with an ice pack, it's time to bring back your lunchbox days.
While these rules are not exhaustive, if you follow them more closely, you’ll prevent Friday afternoon belly troubles so you can enjoy that #Friyay feeling instead.
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. But when you follow these rules, you'll waste less food and eat more of the good stuff.
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, Fitness Magazine’s. 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.