The Food Standards Agency estimates the number of food poisoning cases in the UK to be around five million people each year. Food poisoning varies from mild stomachache to extremely severe illness requiring hospital treatment. Young children and babies are most at risk from food poisoning because it doesn’t take much for them to lose a high percentage of body fluid and become dehydrated.
Food poisoning in the home can be kept at bay with stringent food hygiene practices. Many busy mums prepare food in advance, and often raise questions concerning the safety of cooling, storing and heating ready prepared meals. This article will address some of those questions and future articles will deal with raw food preparation and hygiene.
The strains of a demanding family/work life can be alleviated by time-saving practices, and making food in advance for youngsters eating early or older late arrivals is commonplace. Below are some useful points to consider:
Why Can’t I Put Hot Food Straight into the Fridge or Freezer? – Hot food will warm other foods and could raise the temperature of the fridge.
How Long Should I Leave Food to Cool Down Before Freezing or Refrigerating it? – Food should be cooled as quickly as possible and should certainly not be left longer than one to two hours before being placed in the fridge or freezer.
Can Food be Cooled Down More Quickly? – There is no easy way to speed up cooling, but you can try the following:
- Divide food into smaller portions.
- Place in well-sealed containers and run under cold water.
- Place in a well-sealed container and stand it in a shallow tray of cold water.
How Long Does it Take for Bacteria to Spread? – Bacteria start to develop within two hours and then spread rapidly.
What if the Food Still Hasn’t Cooled Within Two Hours? – Don’t leave the food out any longer than this, as you’ll just be inviting bacteria. Put it into the fridge and if you are concerned, reduce the temperature of the fridge to 2°C or 3°C (normal recommended temperature is around 5°C).
Once the meals are prepared and stored safely away in the fridge or freezer, what is the safest way to heat them through? Some useful pointers:
- Cook the food until it is piping hot, don’t be tempted to warm food partially. To protect little mouths from burning, wait until the food is at a comfortable eating temperature, before giving it to children.
- Check food is hot all the way through by testing with a skewer or knife.
- Stir food when heating, whether in a Microwave or on a hob, to ensure the heat has been evenly distributed.
- Never reheat food more than once.
- Tempting though it is to reheat a child’s unfinished meal, don’t. It has been in contact with skin and saliva and may have been on the plate long enough for bacteria to develop.
- Ensure frozen foods are thawed before heating, unless instructions state otherwise, but don’t leave them at room temperature for too long.
- Eat hot food while it’s hot. Don’t heat it too far in advance of the meal; if it needs to be left ‘briefly’, then ensure it is stored at a temperature higher than 63°C.
It’s also important to answer some questions relating to the storage of our prepared food:
If I Cook too Much Food, How Long Can I Keep it? – Store it in a sealed container in the fridge and use it within 48 hours, but preferably 24 hours. Extra portions of baby food cooked from fresh ingredients should be treated in the same way but used within 24 hours.
Can I Use Cling Film With High Fat Foods? – Some cling film is not suitable for wrapping high fat foods. This will include dishes you’ve prepared with fried meats or cheese etc. Always check the manufacturer’s instructions.
Why Can’t I Use Aluminium Foil for Certain Foods? Acid foods, such as rhubarb, cabbage, soft fruits, can acquire an aluminium taint, which can affect the taste.
What is the Best Way to Store my Meals in the Fridge or Freezer? – Purpose-made sealable containers or bags are fine. Make sure they are well sealed, air tight and leakproof. Check the manufacturer’s instructions to ascertain their suitability for the fridge or freezer and for all types of food.
Why Should I Store Food in the Fridge? – Bacteria thrive in warm temperatures, but have difficulty surviving or spreading at very cold or hot temperatures. Refrigeration slows but does not prevent the growth of bacteria, which is why your chilled meals should be used within 24 to 48 hours.
Why Can’t I Leave Food in Cans? – Once opened, the food is exposed to the air and the tin from the can may transfer more easily/quickly to the contents.