First of all, not all germs in your kitchen are bad for you.
Before you turn into a total germophobe, know that research shows being exposed to germs can actually help boost your immune system and maintain good gut bacteria, says Dr. Pritish Tosh, infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
But you should avoid pathogens — which are different from normal germs. A pathogen is any bacteria, virus, or other organism that causes disease and sickness. “Pathogens are all over your bathroom and the kitchen — but the kitchen is probably worse because we’re less hyper-aware of cleaning like we are with the bathroom, and most people get lazy,” says germ expert Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., director of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona.
So what are the most common mistakes that can increase the risk of those pathogens? Here’s what the experts think:
1. Not treating your kitchen with the same basic standards you hold for restaurants.
“Obviously if everyone’s kitchen had a real health inspection, we would all fail — even the germ experts,” says Reynolds. But we should obviously try to abide by the same rules, like not cross-contaminating surfaces or food with raw meat, not leaving dairy out too long, and always washing your hands after the bathroom, she says.
You can check out your state’s health department website to find out more about restaurant and food guidelines, or browse the FDA’s food facts for consumers.
2. Prepping raw meat, especially poultry, without constantly washing and sanitizing any surface it touches.
“Around 50% of meats from the grocery store are naturally contaminated because of the way they’re processed or handled,” says Reynolds. One sick chicken can infect thousands of others with pathogens like salmonella, E. coli, or campylobacter (food poisoning). These are usually killed during the cooking process. But that’s why you have to be extra careful while prepping raw meat so that you don’t accidentally cross-contaminate other food that won’t be cooked — like a salad.
“You should always use separate pans, cutting boards, and utensils for raw meat and uncooked food unless you sanitize them in between uses,” says Tosh. Likewise, your hands are a great vehicle to transfer pathogens so you should wash them after every time you touch raw meat. Always better to be safe than sorry. Learn more about the proper handling and preparing from the FDA.
3. Refrigerating or defrosting raw meat without putting it in an extra container to catch drips.
It’s easy to just throw raw meats in plastic wrap and styrofoam trays from the store into the fridge but those can easily leak so that the gross raw juices drip out, says Reynolds. “Those drippings can get onto veggies and fruit below and if they contain pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, they’ll cause terrible diarrheal illness,” Tosh says.
It’s even worse if the raw meat is frozen, because the excess water makes dripping more likely. The experts suggest popping your meat in another container like a glass dish or Tupperware to provide extra protection.
4. Not properly disinfecting or bleaching your cutting board.
You know all those grooves and scratches all over your cutting board? Those are perfect places for bacteria and pathogens to get stuck so they contaminate the next thing you plop on it, says Reynolds. Definitely disinfect it between uses if you’re using it to cut raw meat.
Reynolds suggests scrubbing it well with an antibacterial dish soap, but you should also wash it weekly with a diluted bleach mixture, which will kill all the bad stuff.
5. Using a sponge for way too long.
“It’s literally a wet, warm petri dish for bacteria to grow,” says Tosh. And all the holes and crevices collect germs so they’re inside the sponge, where they can survive for weeks. “If we want to know what kind of illnesses have been in your home in the past month, we just need to test your kitchen sponge,” says Reynolds.
If you don’t change your sponge until it smells, that means it’s long past the time you should’ve replaced it because you’re only smelling mold, not the weeks of built-up bacteria. Brushes are a better option, but if you must use a sponge, make sure to replace them monthly. Oh, and maybe don’t try that sponge-in-the-microwave trick unless you want to risk a small fire.
6. Letting sponges or brushes sit on the bottom of your sink or on the counter where they can’t dry.
“It can pick up even more germs from your sink or counter and because it’ll be sitting in a puddle where it can’y fully dry, the germs will grow even more,” says Reynolds. Instead, opt for a little basket, a plastic holder, or a rack where they can actually dry out and they aren’t touching any gross surfaces.
7. Forgetting to disinfect the bottom of your kitchen sink — and eating stuff that’s dropped down there.
“People always forget about the bottom of their sink but it’s one of the dirtiest places in the kitchen, almost as bad as the toilet,” says Reynolds. Because people so often rinse and discard things like raw meat in the sink, it develops a slimy biofilm with bacteria and viruses around the drain and the corners that can sit there for weeks.
So if you drop anything you plan to eat raw (like a rogue cherry tomato), wash it thoroughly. And clean your sink once a week with a disinfectant spray or by filling it with water and bleach.
8. Wiping your counters down with a dirty sponge or rag.
“Absolutely never wipe down your counter with a sponge — it has so many crevices and surface area to collect germs, so they’re trapped. Even if you use the sponge with a disinfectant spray they’re still getting on the counter,” says Reynolds.
Instead, opt for Clorox wipes or spray, and use paper towels or a clean eco-friendly rag that you can launder in a hot sanitizing cycle like one of these.
9. Not sanitizing or replacing your dish brushes often enough.
Brushes are definitely a better choice for cleaning dishes, but food particles can also build up in the brush so it gets pretty gross. “You should rinse dishes first so you get minimal food particles stuck in there over time, and soak it in bleach once a week to disinfect it properly,” says Reynolds.
And have you ever noticed a weird pink stain at the bottom of the bristles? “That’s actually a yeast called Serratia marcescens, which bacteria feeds on, so it can grow like crazy,” Reynolds says. If you see the pink stain, it’s a sign you need to bleach the brush or replace it ASAP.
10. Cooking while you’re sick, especially with a stomach bug.
Would you eat at a restaurant where the chef has the stomach flu? Probably not. “Cooking when you’re sick, especially with a diarrheal illness, is how you cross-contaminate foods and cause outbreaks of diseases like norovirus,” says Tosh. Because diarrheal illnesses spread through the oral-fecal route, all the germs from the bathroom will contaminate the kitchen (and vice versa) so you can get other people sick when they eat food you’ve prepared with pathogen-covered hands, Tosh says.
So try to stay out of the kitchen if you’ve got a bug, or at least make sure to wipe down all surfaces/handles/light switches with a disinfectant wipe and wash your hands with a good antibacterial soap.
11. Leaving food out for too long.
When food is left out at room temperature, it will reach a two-hour point where it becomes the perfect temperature for toxin-producing bacteria to grow, which causes food poisoning and diarrhea. “You either want things to stay hot or refrigerated and limit the time in between when it can reach a temperature that isn’t high enough to kill bacteria or low enough to prevent it from growing,” says Tosh.
This obviously doesn’t mean food that’s supposed to be at room temperature like breads or fresh produce. The experts say the main culprits are casseroles and soups — and especially anything with dairy. “Letting dairy and egg products sit out is very risky, especially things like mayo or hollandaise which contain raw yolks that can contain salmonella,” says Reynolds. So make sure to keep your food at the proper temperature and try not to pick at that potato salad that’s been sitting out for hours at a potluck.
12. Sticking a piping hot pot or pan with food in the fridge instead of allocating it into smaller Tupperware to cool down.
You want to make sure to give things a little time to cool before you put them in the fridge, but it’s also a good idea to put them in a new, smaller containers. “Many people get lazy and put an entire pot or pan of piping hot food covered with foil in the fridge but they don’t realize that pot can take up to 24 hours to actually cool, so it’s like leaving your food sitting out so bacteria can grow for 24 hours,” says Reynolds.
13. Getting careless with use-by and sell-by dates.
Really respect those use-by dates, “because they tell you exactly when the wrong kind of bacteria is at a high enough level to potentially cause illness,” says Reynolds. The sell-by date is a little more ambiguous, so you’ll have to use your discretion. Typically Reynolds suggests waiting no more than 3-4 days after a sell-by date for raw meat and up to a week for produce, but keep in mind that something can go bad sooner if it wasn’t kept properly at the grocery store.
14. Letting your cat walk all over the counters where you prepare and eat food.
Even though cats are adorable and snuggly (sometimes), they can carry all sorts of gross things from their litter box that you definitely don’t want on the surfaces where you prepare and eat food. “Cats carry the pathogens that cause toxoplasmosis from their litter box, which doesn’t hurt the cat but it really hurts people, especially pregnant women because an infection can cause major birth defects in the fetus,” says Reynolds. So try to keep the cat off the counter, or wipe it down after they’ve jumped down.
15. Forgetting to rinse your produce.
A little dirt or sand on your produce won’t hurt you, but there are a lot of possible pathogens that can grown in stuff like bagged lettuce. “Besides possible contamination with raw meat dripping in the fridge or getting on counters, there are organisms that actually prefer cold temperatures so they’ll grow in refrigerated bags of produce,” says Reynolds.
Listeria — which caused one death and a huge Dole lettuce recall recently — is a common pathogen found in bagged produce that can make people seriously ill. “Even if your lettuce seems fine, one wonky spoiled leaf with E. Coli can ruin the whole bag,” Reynolds says. The experts suggest always rinsing bagged veggies, even if the bag says “pre-washed.”
16. Leaving leftovers in the fridge for too long.
Everyone’s guilty of this. But even if your leftovers look and smell fine a week later, be wary. “The smell test is kind of useless because you can’t smell bacteria — which can double in population every 20 minutes,” Reynolds says. Instead, it’s better to stick to a strict 4-5 day window (and obviously a longer time for frozen stuff). If your leftovers sat out at room temperature for a long time before you popped them in the fridge, they’ll definitely go bad faster, says Reynolds, so stick to a 3-day window instead. Yes, it sucks to throw out tasty food, but have you ever had the stomach flu? “I say when in doubt, throw it out,” says Reynolds.
For more information, check out this super useful refrigerator and freezer storage time chart from the FDA website.
17. Using the same old hand towel to dry dishes and your hands.
“The dish drying towel is another thing you really need to be careful about because that towel can serve as a central transfer site for bacteria,” says Reynolds. And it’s pretty much a waste to dry clean dishes with something dirty, right?
The experts agree that you shouldn’t use the same towel to dry dishes and dry hands, and make sure you throw any kitchen towel in the laundry and wash on a hot sanitizing cycle every 1-2 weeks.
18. Forgetting to sanitize your drying rack.
Drying racks are actually a great option for dying dishes and cookware because stuff dries properly and you don’t need to use the same towel on every single dish — but they still need to be sanitized once in a while. “Water collects in the bottom corners and the bottom of the cutlery section in the drying rack so mold and bacteria can actually grow quite easily,” says Reynolds.
So make sure the water is draining from those surfaces properly and clean them out a few times each month with soap and water or disinfectant wipes.
19. Forgetting to wash your hands the right way. All. The. Time.
Whenever you’re in the kitchen preparing food — especially any raw meat or fish — it’s super important to wash your hands before and after. Even if you’re just reheating something for dinner, you should make sure your hands are clean. And yeah, your own germs probably won’t harm you, but you have no idea what gross stuff you picked up during a day out (subway handrails, anyone?).
Get a good antibacterial soap, push the pump down with your clean forearm, and dry your hands on a clean towel. Whenever you get lazy and don’t want to do it, just think about eating at a restaurant where the cooks don’t bother to wash their hands. YUP.
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