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Test Your Children’s Food Safety Knowledge Before Letting Them Have the Run of the Kitchen

Posted by Maribel Alonso, Senior Technical Information Specialist, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA in Health and Safety
Sep 01, 2020
People making lunch
Teaching food safety to children encourages healthy behaviors. Photo credit: FSIS

September is Food Safety Education Month and it’s a perfect time to test your children’s food safety knowledge before you let them take over your kitchen. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many children have spent more time at home – and visited the kitchen numerous times a day.

Many kids today are more health conscious than children generations ago. They aren’t just opening a bag of chips – they now prepare healthy sandwiches and salads and use the microwave to heat up other options like instant noodles or soup. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has developed resources you can use with your elementary-, middle school-, or high school-age children to see how much they really know about fighting germs.

You and your children can mark Food Safety Education Month by organizing a food safety workshop at home. Use these resources as you walk them around the kitchen and teach them some basic food safety tips.

Start with food safety basics if your child is in K-fifth grade:

  • Clean. Wash hands before touching food and after playing outside, playing with your pet, or going to the bathroom. Recent observational studies completed by USDA found that 99 percent of the participants in test kitchens didn’t wash their hands properly. Hand washing should always include five simple steps:
    • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap and apply soap.
    • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
    • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
    • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
    • Dry your hands using a clean towel.

*Tip: You can include a moist towelette or hand sanitizer with kids’ lunches or snacks to clean their hands before eating.

  • Separate. No backpacks on the kitchen counter. Place backpacks and sports equipment on the floor and NOT on the kitchen counter. These items can carry bacteria that can be transferred to the food. Also keep raw meat, poultry, and eggs away from other foods; your child isn’t too young to learn which foods must be cooked before eating.
  • Cook. Always make sure your meat, poultry, and egg products are completely cooked before preparing snacks and eating. It may be too early for your youngster to start using a food thermometer, but not too early to learn to read a product’s label to check if it is raw or cooked. Always check labels to avoid eating raw foods.
  • Chill. Keep food out of the danger zone. Don’t leave perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. This includes your lunch. Packed lunches need two cold sources to stay safe. Pack your lunch with a frozen gel pack and frozen juice box or water bottle to keep it cold.

Your sixth- to eighth-grader is more kitchen savvy and may explore with preparing and cooking more. Remind them of these additional food safety steps to avoid foodborne illness:

  • Clean: Wash hands with clean, running water and soap for at least 20 seconds before you start handling and preparing food, especially if you just finished chores like taking out the trash or feeding your pet. Clean counters and surfaces with soap and hot water before preparing foods to avoid cross-contamination. Sanitizing wipes are also handy for surfaces.
  • Separate: Don’t mix fruits with raw meat or poultry. Bacteria can contaminate the items you won’t be cooking and make you sick. And no, it won’t be fun to stay home from school with food poisoning. Raw chicken nuggets could contaminate fruit and other ready to eat foods.
  • Cook: Before using the microwave to cook, did you read the food label? If they’re old enough to use a microwave, follow these tips:
    • Make sure to read the label carefully and follow cooking instructions (or recipe instructions). If a range of time is given, start with the fewest minutes recommended. If a safe internal temperature has not been reached after that, add additional cooking time until a safe internal temperature is reached as measured by a food thermometer.
    • Foods and liquids are heated unevenly in the microwave, so cover and stir or rotate food midway through cooking. If you don’t, you’ll have cold spots where harmful bacteria can survive.
    • Use only glass and other containers labeled “made for microwave use.”
  • Chill: Throw away leftover perishable foods that were out longer than two hours – or one hour if it’s above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. When in doubt, throw it out! Discard leftovers from lunch that weren’t kept cold. When preparing after school snacks, such as cut fruit or other perishable food, refrigerate them within two hours.

Multitasking Teenagers (Ninth - 12th grade)

At this age, kids are always busy with lots of schoolwork and activities. In addition to the information included above, here are important tips for this age group:

  • Clean: Washing hands properly is important at any age. Teenagers are always on the run, so keep hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes in their backpack and in the car.
  • Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate. Keep raw meat and poultry away from ready-to-eat foods. Use different cutting boards for raw meat or poultry and another for ready-to-eat foods like fruits or vegetables.
  • Cook: When cooking either in the microwave or on the stove, use a food thermometer to make sure your food is done. You can’t tell by looking if meat or poultry is fully cooked; color and texture are not reliable indicators of safety. Just as you take time to learn how to drive safely, it is as important to know how to use a food thermometer to check for safety and doneness. Place the food thermometer in the thickest part of food, without touching bone, fat or gristle. Follow these recommended internal temperatures.
    • Beef, pork, veal and lamb (roast, steaks and chops) should be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit with a three minute “rest time” after removal from the heat source.
    • For ground meats, like burgers or sausage, cook them to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • Cook eggs and egg dishes to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • Poultry, such as chicken wings, breast and thighs should reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Chill: Takeout foods should be treated the same way as leftovers at home. Don’t leave that pizza or carry out food in the car. Most foodborne illness-causing organisms grow quickly at room temperature; after two hours, they may be so numerous they cannot be killed by reheating.

Consumers can learn more about key food safety practices at Foodsafety.gov, by following @USDAFoodSafety on Twitter and by liking Facebook.com/FoodSafety.gov. Consumers with questions about food safety can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish, or email to mphotline@usda.gov. Consumers can also chat live at ask.usda.gov.

If you have questions about storage times for food or beverages, download USDA’s FoodKeeper application for Android and iOS devices.

Category/Topic: Health and Safety

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