I got food poisoning three times last year (aah!), and since then, I’ve been a little bit obsessive about not spending another night hugging the toilet. These are some simple ways to avoid food poisoning, so you can worry less and enjoy your meal more.
When you know how food poisoning works, you’re more able to take control of your own food safety and avoid spending the night on the bathroom floor or, even worse, in the emergency room. Joan Raymond at Today recently shared a list of food poisoning myths that every food consumer (aka: everyone) should know. I have added on to Raymond’s list with some solid tips from the Mayo Clinic.
We like to blame food that we ate in the last 24 hours for food poisoning, but how soon you get sick depends on what poisoned you. According to Raymond, norovirus takes 12-24 hours to make you sick, but if you ate food contaminated with E.coli, it can take up to eight days to hit you. Rather than have to think back over your last week’s worth of meals, let’s avoid food poisoning in the first place!
How to Avoid Food Poisoning
The CDC estimates that one in every six Americans will suffer from food poisoning, which means that a lot of us could stand a little refresher on safe food handling. These are some food safety basics to help you avoid food poisoning.
1. Avoid the danger zone.
The “danger zone” for food temperature is between 40F and 140F. Food that has been in that temperature range for more than two hours is not safe to eat. We’re more wary when food sits out in the sun, but food can also reach this danger zone sitting out on a buffet at home or in a restaurant.
The best way to avoid the danger zone is to eat the food as soon as possible. It’s fine to serve food buffet-style, but store cold food in the fridge or a cooler until everyone is ready to eat. And for hot foods, eat them as soon as you can after they come off of the grill or stove or out of the oven.
You also want to stay away from the danger zone during food prep. When you’re cooking a meal that will take more than an hour or so, pull ingredients out as-needed, rather an all at once. If you’re defrosting food to prepare, don’t leave it out on the counter. Defrost in the refrigerator or use your microwave’s defrost function.
2. Avoid cross-contamination.
Avoiding cross-contamination helps keep bacteria from your hands out of your guests’ food, and it limits the spread, if you do end up with bad food in the mix. This is important during prep and during serving. The first step to stopping cross-contamination is to wash your hands well before you start cooking.
Keep knives and work surfaces clean, and wash all of your produce before cooking. It’s also important to keep raw or unwashed food away from cooked food.
When you serve, make sure everything has its own serving spoon. That way, if the potato salad spoils, people dishing slaw onto their plates will dodge the bullet.
3. Wash your produce (even fruit with thick peels).
Don’t just rinse produce before cooking. Instead, wash it with an antibacterial produce wash, even if it has a rind or peel that you’re planning to remove. Bacteria can live on the rind, and when you slice it with a knife or use your fingers to peel, you contaminate the fruit.
4. Avoid undercooked meat.
I don’t eat meat, but if you do, you definitely want to practice safe handling and cook things to well done. Since handling meat isn’t my forte, I’m going to point you to this resource from Whole Foods where you can find some helpful tips on how to choose, store and handle meat safely.
5. Avoid risky foods.
This is especially true if you don’t know how it’s been stored and handled. The Australian Institute of Food Safety says that these are the top 10 foods at risk for food poisoning.
If you feel like you’re in a situation where food handling or storage isn’t ideal, opt for safer items, like cooked vegetables. Pass the veggie skewers and grilled corn, please!
6. When in doubt, throw it out.
I hate food waste, but sometimes you’re better off safe than sorry. If you are worried that something has been sitting out for too long or could be contaminated, pitch it into the compost. It’s better to lose a few cups of coleslaw than to risk a middle-of-the-night trip to the emergency room.
Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t avoid food poisoning, despite your best efforts. Maybe you ate at a friend’s house or at a restaurant, where someone handled food unsafely, for example. If you do get food poisoning, I am so sorry—it’s awful. But for some people, it can become a medical emergency.
Know When to Call the Doctor
Food poisoning is the pits. It can mean a day or two of suffering, and often you’re fine to recover at home. Sometimes, though, you should seek professional medical help. Three thousand people die each year from food poisoning, so knowing when to hit the ER could be a lifesaver.
Very young children, the elderly, pregnant people or someone suffering from other illnesses at the same time are at the highest risk for complications from food poisoning. In general, Raymond says it’s ER time, “If you have blood in your stool, a fever, you’ve been vomiting repeatedly or had diarrhea more than a couple of days.”