In order for the foods that we eat to hold the highest nutritive value, it is important to take special care in selecting foods of the highest quality, storing them properly (prior to and after preparation), and preparing them correctly and safely. Quality is not the same as safety. A poor-quality food may be safe (such as stale cereal, overripe fruit or soured pasteurized milk). An unsafe food may have good quality in terms of appearance and taste, but have a high (unsafe) bacterial count. By thinking about food quality and safety when purchasing, storing, and preparing foods, you will not only ensure optimal taste and nutrition, but you may also prevent foodborne illnesses from affecting those who consume the foods.
Food selection is the first step in this process of maintaining nutritional quality. To help assure quality, product dating is often used. Though product dating is optional, many food producers employ dating as a helpful tool for consumer use. The most commonly used package dating guidelines are as follows:
- Sell-by Date — This is the last recommended day of sale. The date allows for home storage and use.
- Use-by Date — Tells how long the product will retain top quality after you buy it.
- Expiration Date — This is the last day the product should be used or eaten.
- Pack Date — Canned or packaged foods may have pack dates, which tell you when the product was processed. This does not tell you how long the food will be good.
Additionally, look for packages of food that are not torn or broken. Canned goods should be free of dents, cracks and bulging lids. Avoid buying produce that is bruised, damaged, moldy, or that shows signs of insect damage. Bruises and cuts may allow bacteria or pathogens to enter a fruit or vegetable. Damaged fruits and vegetables may also spoil faster. Refrigerated food should feel cold and frozen food should be frozen solid. Check eggs, too. Open the carton to see if any eggs are broken or cracked. Only buy eggs that are refrigerated in the store. When shopping, place packaged raw meat, poultry and fish in plastic bags and keep from contact with other foods. Also be careful to keep food items and cleaning supplies separated from each other. Both cold foods and hot, prepared foods should be added to your shopping cart last to help keep them at the proper temperatures. Take perishable foods home quickly to refrigerate. If travel time will exceed one hour, pack fresh meats in a cooler with ice and keep in the passenger area of the car in warm weather.
Proper food storage is also critical to maintaining the quality and safety of your food. At home, refrigerate perishable food immediately. The “DANGER ZONE” for most food is 40 to 140 °F. Bacteria grow most rapidly in this range of temperatures, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. Refrigerator temperatures should be between 34oF and 40oF. The freezer temperature should be at or below 0oF. Since bacteria frequently get into food through careless food handling, keep everything (hands, pantry, shelves and storage containers) clean. Do not wash fruits and vegetables before storage. Instead, wash them when you are ready to use them. Washing fruits and vegetables before storing them could promote spoilage and mold growth. Use proper food wraps and storage containers and keep raw meats separate from other foods. Storage cabinets should be cool and dry. Storage areas near ovens or ranges, hot water pipes, or heating ducts should not be used because heat and moisture can cause a food to lose its quality more rapidly. Food stored beyond the recommended time may still be safe to eat, but eating quality (flavor and texture) and nutritive value will be reduced. For best results in maintaining product quality practice the rule, first in – first out. This means you use the oldest products first and the newest products later.
Finally, follow safe practices when preparing and handling food. To prevent foodborne illness, be sure to keep your hands, cooking utensils and cooking area clean. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food and after touching raw meat, using the restroom, handling a pet or any other activity that could contaminate your hands. Dry your hands with a paper towel. Wash all whole fruits and vegetables before preparing them, even if the skin or rind will not be eaten. Use two separate cutting boards to avoid cross-contamination. Use one for raw meats and the other for fruits and vegetables. Wash your cutting board with hot soapy water before you go on to the next food. For extra protection, you can clean the board with a kitchen sanitizer, such as a solution of one teaspoon chlorine bleach to one quart water. When the cutting board becomes worn or hard to clean, throw it out and get a new one. Meat, poultry, and seafood need to stay cold while they thaw. Thaw in the refrigerator for one to two days prior to use or thaw in the microwave on “defrost” setting and cook right away. Cook meats, poultry, and eggs thoroughly using a meat thermometer to measure the internal temperature if possible. If the food is left out for two or more hours, germs can grow, so put leftovers into the refrigerator or freezer as soon as you finish eating. Put them into shallow dishes so that they cool faster. Eat them in the next few days, before they go bad. Throw away anything that looks or smells suspicious. If you think a food might be bad, don’t taste it!
Many people do not think about food safety until a food-related illness affects them or a family member. While the food supply in the United States is one of the safest in the world, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 Americans die each year from foodborne illness. Additionally, by selecting high quality items and storing them properly, food will retain the best flavor and nutritional value. So for your enjoyment, health, and safety, use the keys of proper selection, storage, and food safety practices to maintain high quality and utmost nutritional value of the foods that you eat.