My kitchen cleanliness used to be...questionable. Although I didn’t start cooking until my early 20’s, I did try along the way. One time in college, I left out a package of frozen, raw chicken on the counter to defrost. It stayed there for a few days before I threw it away. The problem is, I threw it away because I was too lazy to cook, NOT because of food safety. I knew nothing about food bacteria!
Fast forward nine years, I’m now a dietitian and a certified ServSafe Food Protection Manager. I cringe at that past memory but thankful to be educated in kitchen sanitation. Today, let’s talk about five kitchen fails you need to avoid to keep yourself, and anyone you cook for, safe from food poisoning and contamination.
Fail #1: Not Washing Your Hands
You are always touching things and using the restroom, so your hands can be physically dirty or appear clean but carrying germs and bacteria. Wash them with soap and warm water for about 20 seconds before cooking or preparing food. If you handle raw meats, wash your hands afterward before touching cooked foods or ready-to-eat items like salads.
Fail #2: Serving Physical Food Contaminants
Remember the last time you had hair in your food? We all do! It’s unpleasant, and you don’t want to be remembered as the person who served hair in their potluck dish. Tie your hair back before cooking and, better yet, wear a hat over your hair as well. Cover up those beards, too.
Everyone who cooks often should keep their nails trimmed and unpainted. This includes clear polish. Nails carry dirt and debris underneath, and polish can crack and go into the food you’re serving. If you desire manicured nails, wear disposable gloves while you cook. Also, take off loose jewelry, so it doesn't fall into the food.
Fail #3: Serving Undercooked Meat
In the great words of Gordon Ramsay, “Why didn’t the chicken cross the road? Because you didn’t [bleep]-ing cook it!”
If you don’t already have one, get yourself a food thermometer right now and print off the USDA’s Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart. Different bacteria are found on different foods, and they die at various temperatures, so this guide tells you exactly what internal temperature your protein should reach to be safe for consumption. When measuring the temperature, penetrate to the middle of the thickest part of the meat.
Fail #4: Cross-Contamination
Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria spread from one area to another unintentionally. For example, slicing a raw chicken breast on a cutting board, then immediately using the same board and knife to cut fresh vegetables for a salad is considered cross-contamination. Another scenario: I witnessed someone marinating raw chicken in a container, then he tried to use the same marinade to serve over cooked chicken. I stopped him in time! The marinade is contaminated with raw chicken juices and should NOT be served over prepared foods.
Get yourself two cutting boards of different colors. Dedicate one to produce and another one to raw proteins. If you only have one board to work with, prioritize your prepping by prepping produce first, then raw meats. Wash, clean, and sanitize the board afterward.
Fail #5: Thawing Protein at Room Temperature
Let’s go back in time and teach my younger self how to defrost the chicken. Bacteria grow the fastest between 41 and 135 degrees F; therefore raw foods should not be kept at room temperature. While frozen proteins are convenient and can save you a few trips to the grocery store, it’s important to know how to defrost correctly.
Start practicing these methods whenever you cook, and they will eventually become second nature. Have a kitchen fail you want to share? Comment below.
Jane Pelcher, RDN
I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist focused on helping everyone love nutrition through cooking! My blogs provide new home cooks with basic cooking skills and grocery shopping tips. Most importantly, I strive to teach the nutrition behind the foods you cook to help you understand how specific foods can better your health and prevent chronic diseases. I hope you embark on this journey with me!