The kitchen signifies many things to many people. It is often around the kitchen table that families come together, sharing stories and memories over toast and jam. The vignettes are endless: little kids on stools begging to lick the bowl of cookie dough, newly minted homeowners making fancy feasts with red wine, couples reinventing old recipes with increased culinary know-how.
Along with the joy of cooking, however, come ignored pathogens that can wreak havoc on our health. In this case, ignorance is not bliss. The more you know about these little microbes and viruses in your kitchen, the better prepared you are to avoid nasty associated maladies. Here are some five common habits that you should avoid.
Old sponges? Eww…
The life cycle of a dish sponge varies from family to family, from season to season and, sometimes, from day to day. Most households will trade in their grimy-looking sponge for a fresh replacement if there is a stockpile of them under the sink but wait significantly longer once the four-pack disappears. The thrifty buyer’s mantra — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — does not apply to kitchen sponges.
A sponge should be discarded long before physical signs of wear and tear cause any concern. A more economical and less wasteful solution, too, is to start cleaning your sponges.
To keep sponges fresh and clean for longer, throw them into the dishwasher when you run a load. The same soapy goodness that cleans your plates can help keep your sponges germ-free. Another trick is to nuke your moist sponges in the microwave for a minute. This should kill any bugs and viruses.
We’ve all done it. The hamburger is frozen. It’s packaged in plastic and rests quite happily upon a styrofoam plate. We don’t notice any leakages when we transfer it from our freezer to the refrigerator, and we don’t worry about it. We probably should. As the ice melts and the meat defrosts, the liquid can leak into other foods, along with some nasty bugs.
The solution is simple: Place meat on a plate in your fridge. It only takes a minute, and it can save your family some awful stomach pain. An alternative solution is to dedicate a permanent plastic bin in your refrigerator for thawing meat.
There is nothing better than reheated enchiladas for lunch, as long as those enchiladas are not a week old! A commitment to the frugal mindset of repackage, reheat and re-eat is a mainstay of American kitchen habits. It prevents waste and keeps us from eating packaged lunches of questionable nutritional value. Frugality is great, but like with most good things, it can have a dark side. Many an American has pulled out the Tupperware, taken a cautionary sniff and thought, “It hasn’t been too long, right?” If you have to ask, it probably has.
Leftovers are only good for three or four days in the refrigerator. After this amount of time, you and your family are courting a bout of food poisoning. A simple and effective way to ensure that your leftovers aren’t too leftover is to label your Tupperware with the date stored or simply pick a day of the week everything is thrown out, no matter what. If you know in advance that your leftovers won’t be eaten up in the next few days, consider storing them in the freezer instead.
The next time you find yourself sniffing leftovers, remember: You can’t smell the bacteria that causes food poisoning. Best to throw it out.
Pets in the kitchen
Your kitty may be adorably fluffy and clean looking, but she also walks around in the litter box. Her paws then transfer fecal matter from her litter box to your kitchen counter. Every attempt should be made to keep animals off of kitchen counters, though the practical methods for doing so can be daunting. Let’s face it: Cats pretty much do whatever they want.
Here are a few tips for discouraging this behavior:
- Set up little traps, like arranging a cookie sheet on the end of the counter so that it will fall when she jumps up
- Make your countertops less inviting by closing blinds or spraying smelly cleaner
- Place aluminum foil on the countertops
If all this seems like overkill or you are certain that your cat will still insist on basking in the light of your kitchen fluorescents, then make sure you clean your countertops with an antibacterial agent before preparing food.
Serving up sickness
The traditionally idealized American work ethic is not one with sick days. For a long time our corporate world rewarded the sneezing, sniffling worker who braved the subway to get their job done rain or shine. Luckily, a better understanding of contagion has led most employers to promote using sick days instead of risking an office-wide epidemic. The same logic needs to apply to household work, especially in the kitchen.
Illnesses — particularly those with symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting — can easily spread in the kitchen. The Minnesota Department of Health warns that this is true up to three days after you have stopped seeing symptoms. The best thing to do when you’re sick is just take a break. Order takeout for a few days. Your family will thank you.
Erin is a freelance writer, photographer and filmmaker. She is passionate about moving beyond party politics to identify pragmatic solutions to social, economic and political problems. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Times, the American Spectator, Doublethink and Scuba Diver Magazine. She spends her free time scuba diving, snowboarding and ravenously reading popular nonfiction. Erin holds a master’s degree in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics.