When cooking a meal, we consider measurements, baking times, and countless other details. Something that might slip our mind is if we prepared the meal safely. Have we cross-contaminated? Did we thoroughly wash our hands long enough? To stay safe while preparing your Fourth of July feast, refer to the four C’s of food safety: clean, contain, cook, and chill.
Cleaning is the first step to keep you on track when it comes to food preparation and safety. It’s important to clean your hands and all surfaces that will be used while cooking your meal, including cutting boards, counter-tops, knives, etc. This is especially important if you are handling ingredients that will not be cooked, like salad. “Before cooking, wash your hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Wash your hands and surfaces completely after you handle food, especially after touching raw meat,” said Chris Mackenzie, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.
Containment is key to preventing cross-contamination. Cutting boards and cooking utensils used for raw meat and seafood should be kept separate from all other ingredients. E. coli can live on a surface for up to 24 hours. Immediately throwing away the packaging from meat and poultry can help reduce your risk of contaminating your cooking area.
“For those who will be barbecuing, make sure there are two sets of tongs, one for raw meat and seafood and another for cooked food,” said Mackenzie.
He also suggests using a color-coding system or two pairs of tongs that look different, so there won’t be a mix-up while serving your guests.
To kill bacteria that can cause food poisoning, it is important to cook all meat, poultry, and seafood properly. Depending on what you are preparing, cooking times will vary. A meat thermometer can help you determine that the internal temperature of your meal has reached a safe temperature to eat. After each use, you should wash your meat thermometer in hot, soapy water to kill any bacteria.
If your Fourth of July meal will be picnic-style, Mackenzie suggests keeping certain foods, like potato salad or coleslaw, on ice and covered to prevent pests.
“Letting foods that should remain cold warm up is a common route to food poisoning,” he said. “Bacteria that live in foods will release toxins as the temperature rises and can result in illness.”
Once your meal is cooked, leftovers should be cooled down as quickly as possible to ensure food safety.
“If you are preparing a big batch of food that will last for several meals, box them into several containers (preferably shallow boxes, so they can cool down fast in the fridge or freezer). Do all this while the food is still hot,” said Mackenzie. Leftovers in the fridge should be eaten or thrown away within three days.
Though the Fourth of July is usually a time for friends and family to gather, it is still recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid crowds, socially distance, wear masks, and wash your hands well and often.