Choosing to cook and eat home more often, and meal prepping portions to take for lunches during the work week, is a proven way to stick to a healthier diet. People who eat home-cooked meals frequently are more likely to have a normal BMI and a normal body-fat percentage, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Plus, they tend to take in significantly more fruits and veggies on a daily basis.
But when you’re cooking at home, the focus shouldn’t be solely on which foods you’re putting on your plate. “It’s important to take a closer look at your eating behaviors and not just look at the foods you are eating,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com, author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. “No one will remember how great their food tasted if they got sick after it was swallowed.”
You might think that food-safety rules are pretty obvious and you’re already following them. But we’ve uncovered some secrets that are surprising. Read on for tips about how to whip up a healthy meal safely.
Shop Frozen Foods Last
The number-one rule in food safety has to do with temperature. You should always keep cold food cold (we’re talking 40˚F or below) and hot foods hot, as temperatures between 160˚ and 212˚F kill most bacteria, says Taub-Dix. But your kitchen isn’t the only place you should keep that in mind. While at the grocery store, pile produce and non-perishables like canned foods into your cart before heading to the refrigerated and frozen aisles. Adding those chilled items to your cart last will make it more likely that they’ll stay the correct temp until you get them home and in the fridge or freezer. Once there, cook or freeze fish, ground meat, and poultry within two days. Other meats like beef and pork can go three to five days in the fridge before you cook or freeze them.
Divide and Conquer
Keep work surfaces clean. Additionally, keep raw meat, fish, and poultry separate from produce and cooked foods to prevent cross contamination, advises Taub-Dix. You should use different cutting boards for each type of food. This applies not just while you’re preparing one meal but all the time. A good idea to make sure you do so is to assign certain cutting boards to each food group (meat, veggies, etc.). Make sure you always stick with the same one for each. Might sound like a pain, but it’s super-easy, she says, if you just color-code your boards. Similarly, you should never use the same utensils for raw meat, poultry or seafood as you would use to prepare produce or ready-to-eat foods without thoroughly washing them.
Cook by Number
Just like the storage temperature of certain foods is crucial to keeping them safe, cooking meats and poultry to specific temps is a must as well. Most packages include a food safety label that calls out a proper cooking temperature. You should follow this using a food thermometer—not just guessing by time cooked or the color of the meat. “A food thermometer is an inexpensive investment that could save you money in doctor bills,” says Taub-Dix.
Wash Up (Again)
Washing your hands with soap before you start cooking is a no-brainer. But are you sudsing up enough throughout meal prep? “Proper hand washing may eliminate nearly half of all cases of food poisoning and can even significantly reduce the spread of the common cold and flu,” says Taub-Dix. “But you’d be shocked at how many people diligently wash their hands before meal prep and then during prep they pet their dog or pick up their phone, which could be a hot bed of bacteria.” If you have to scroll through a recipe or snap a pic mid meal prep, that’s fine. Just make sure to pause to wash your hands again before you turn back to the stove.
It’s easy to forget about storing your leftovers safely when you’re lingering over a great dinner or doing housework while letting your meal-prep portions cool. But leaving extra servings on the counter too long is a surefire way to get sick. Leftover foods from a meal should not stay out of refrigeration longer than two hours, advises Taub-Dix, and no longer than one hour in hot weather. “If you’re putting food out during a party, it might be best to serve in small batches. Keep some food cold in the fridge while the rest is offered to your guests,” she says.
Don’t Be Afraid to Toss It
Yes, it can feel wasteful to throw away food that’s just a little bit questionable—whether it’s a leftover lunch you left on the counter all afternoon or a refrigerated package of chicken breasts a day past their sell-by date. But sometimes it’s just what you have to do. “The best advice is: When in doubt, throw it out,” says Taub-Dix. “No meal is worth getting sick over.”