4 Basic Food Safety Rules Every Home Cook Should Know, According to Experts

Food scientists and food safety experts explain the importance of these simple steps.

No matter how tasty a dish turns out, it's going to be a flop if it makes you (or your guests) sick. Foodborne illness is quite common, affecting one in six Americans every year. And while the signs of food poisoning can vary by person and situation, it often involves unpleasant symptoms like vomiting, nausea, and stomach cramps. Some people, including older adults or individuals with compromised immune systems, have a higher risk of developing more serious illnesses.

That's why it's so important to follow these four basic food safety best practices: clean, separate, cook, and chill. When implemented regularly, these steps will help reduce the risk of food poisoning, whether you're making lunch for one or feeding a crowd. Learn more about these basic food safety tips from experts and how to implement them in your kitchen—as well as how each step can protect you and your loved ones from food poisoning.

Woman spooning meat into tupperware

1. Clean Hands, Surfaces, and Produce

Before diving into any recipe, wash your hands with warm and soapy water for 20 seconds—and again during and after meal prep, says Archie Magoulas, food safety specialist at the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. Remember, your hands are your main tools in the kitchen, so keeping them clean is key for safety.

Hand washing is especially important after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs, which can spread foodborne illness-causing germs, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Likewise, wash your hands before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, using the bathroom, changing diapers, handling trash, and touching pets or pet food, says Magoulas.

Hand Sanitizer Isn't a Substitute for Hand Washing

It's worth noting that hand sanitizer isn't a viable substitute for hand washing in the kitchen. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer might kill some microbes, but it won't remove soil and residue, says Abby Snyder, Ph.D, assistant professor of food science at Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Hand washing with warm, soapy water will help break down these components, efficiently cleaning your hands.

Wash Kitchen Equipment Before and After Use

Additionally, always wash utensils, plates, and cutting boards—essentially any kitchen item you'll be using. Again, use warm and soapy water, and wash after preparing each type of food.

Wash Produce

Rinse fruits and vegetables under cool running water just before eating, says Ghaida Batarseh Havern, MS, food safety extension educator at Michigan State University. This is necessary even if your produce has a non-edible rind (think watermelon or oranges), as dirt and germs may be on the skin.

"While rinsing under running water, rub firm-skinned fruits and vegetables by hand or scrub [them] with a vegetable brush," suggests Havern. "Never use soap or detergent, because produce is porous and they're not approved by the FDA for washing foods," she adds. Doing so will present the risk of ingesting soap residue, which can make you sick, says Havern.

Take note: It's not recommended to rinse raw meat, says Havern. The practice will spread bacteria to your sink, sponges, and other items, effectively contaminating your kitchen.

2. Separate to Prevent Cross-Contamination

Another basic food safety practice is separation. This is vital to prevent cross-contamination, which "refers to the transfer of pathogens from one surface to another," says Snyder. For example, if you prepare raw salmon on a cutting board then use it to slice lettuce, the latter will pick up germs from the raw fish. And while the salmon will be cooked (a process that destroys germs), the lettuce will likely be eaten raw, meaning it will still have the harmful germs.

With that in mind, the Partnership for Food Safety Education suggests using separate cutting boards for fresh produce and raw meat, poultry, and seafood. "Cutting boards have the potential to hide bacteria, no matter what type you use," says Havern.

Separate Raw and Ready-to-Eat Foods in Bags and the Fridge

Separation is also necessary between raw and ready-to-eat foods, whether they're in your grocery bags or refrigerator. Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs (and their juices) away from cooked, ready-to-eat, and fresh products, says Magoulas. You can do this by placing raw items in plastic bags or containers, as suggested by the United States Department of Agriculture.

3. Cook to the Correct Temperature

In general, most people can tell the difference between cooked and raw food—but they likely can't tell if a food has been cooked enough to kill potential pathogens, says Snyder. Magoulas echoes this notion, adding that many people assume a hamburger is done if it's brown in the middle, for example. "However, looking at the color and texture of food is not enough. You have to use a food thermometer to be sure," says Magoulas.

How to Check Food Temperatures

A food thermometer lets you check the internal temperature of meat, poultry, and eggs, explains Magoulas. "[This] not only keeps your family safe from harmful food bacteria, but it also helps you avoid overcooking, giving you a flavorful meal," he says.

Per the USDA, the following foods should be cooked to these safe-to-eat temperatures:

  • Raw beef, pork, lamb, and veal (in steak, roast, or chop form) should reach an internal temperature of 145°F before it is removed from the heat.
  • Raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F.
  • Raw chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F.

When checking the internal temperature, insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. The probe should not touch the gristle (cartilage), bone, or fat, says Havern.

4. Chill Food Promptly

Although it can be tempting to leave food out for future use or snacking, doing so can cause bacteria (such as Salmonella and E.coli) to grow to illness-causing levels, says Magoulas. This can happen when food sits at room temperature for too long and reaches 40°F to 140°F, a range known as the temperature danger zone. When food is in this zone, bacteria can rapidly multiply, doubling in number in just 20 minutes, explains Magoulas. Some pathogens can even produce toxins, according to Snyder.

How to Safely Store Leftovers

The best food safety practice is to refrigerate leftovers within two hours of cooking, says Havern. Place them in airtight storage container and toss any perishable foods that have been sitting out for longer than two hours, she adds. The leftovers will last three to four days in the refrigerator (at 40°F) or in the freezer for three to four months. However, if the area is particularly warm (above 90°F), avoid leaving food out for more than one hour, says Magoulas.

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