Five food safety tips for students living away from home
Moving away from home to attend college or university can be one of the most exciting times of your life: you're finally flying the nest, getting a chance to live without boundaries and take responsibility for your own upkeep for the first time.
For many young people, moving out of the family home will also mark the first time they will take full control over their own diets and food preparation. This, too, can be an exciting step towards truly independent living - but it can also come with risks if the basics of food safety and hygiene aren't properly respected.
Fortunately, avoiding food poisoning when learning the ropes of home cooking shouldn't be too difficult, provided that you bear a few key principles and titbits of advice in mind. By following these simple guidelines, you'll be able to ensure that every meal you prepare is as hygienic as it is delicious, whether cooking alone or with new friends.
The golden rule - keep everything washed and clean
Food Standards Agency figures indicate that the UK has more than 500,000 reported cases of people experiencing food poisoning each year. In many cases, this will manifest in an unpleasant stomach upset, but in some instances it can quickly escalate into something a lot more serious and potentially life-threatening.
That's why it's so important to make sure you follow the most basic and important rule when preparing food: keep everything you're using as clean as possible. That means wiping down worktops before and after, making sure that dishcloths and tea towels don't become breeding grounds for germs, and washing up any plates and dishes you use as soon as you can.
Most importantly, you need to be diligent about washing your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water, and to dry them before handling food. No excuses!
Take proper precautions when dealing with raw meat
Most food hygiene problems in the kitchen arise from mishandling raw meat, which can easily cause infections and contamination if it isn't handled with care. When preparing raw meat, make sure you keep it separate from the other ingredients, especially ready-to-eat items such as salad, fruit and bread. Using separate chopping boards for raw food and other ingredients is one simple way of doing this.
Proper care should also be taken when storing raw meat - it's probably best to place it on the bottom shelf of the fridge, where it's less likely to touch or drip down onto other foods. Don't make the mistake of trying to wash the meat before cooking it, though - not only does this have no benefit, it actually increases the risk of bacteria spreading through the kitchen.
Cook your food thoroughly
When dealing with meat, the best way to make sure it's safe to eat is to cook it thoroughly until it's steaming hot all the way through, with clear juices and no trace of bloody redness.
This is a general principle that applies regardless of whether you're cooking chicken, pork, beef or lamb, but remember that each type and cut of meat is likely to require a different cooking time, so it's best to research this in advance rather than trying to cook everything in the same way.
Store food the right way
Food storage is another vital aspect of kitchen safety. For non-perishable items or foods that don't need to be refrigerated, a cool, dry storage area will be suitable in most cases. For cold storage, make sure your fridge temperature is kept below 5°C to stop bacteria from growing.
Careful storage is particularly important when dealing with food that's already been cooked; as soon as you know you're not going to be eating it straight away, cool down your leftovers within 90 minutes and then store it. If it's in the fridge rather than the freezer, eat it within two days.
Pay attention to 'use by' dates
Most people are aware of the dates printed on the side of the majority of food products, but some don't pay attention to the difference between a 'best before' and a 'use by' date. 'Best before' dates have more to do with food quality than safety - foods that have passed their date by a few days will still be safe to eat, even if they're no longer at their best.
'Use by' dates are a different matter entirely, as these are based on scientific tests that show how quickly dangerous bugs can develop in packaged food. As such, it's best to simply avoid eating anything that's past its 'use by' date, even if it looks and smells OK - when food poisoning is a possibility, it's just not worth taking the risk.
Summary: University is the first time many young people will have had to prepare their own food - so it's vital to make sure they learn all the basic food safety and hygiene rules.