The college lifestyle is not exactly conducive to a healthy and safe eating environment. As a recent college graduate myself, I know the eating habits of college students all too well. From four-day-old pizza to uncooked microwavable hot dogs, there isn’t much a college student won’t eat. Given the academic rigor of college life, the lack of a reliable bank statement and the desire to find the next party, food safety is not quite at the top of a college student’s priority list. In fact, food safety is probably number sixty-eight on the list, right after cleaning the shower. As a result, the college setting can be a hotbed for unsafe food handling practices and foodborne illness.
The reality is that basic food safety is incredibly simple and painless to follow. Unfortunately, many college students are unaware of this. The aim, then, is to provide students with a reliable, easy-to-follow set of food safety practices. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kitchen-clueless freshman or a grill-savvy senior – everyone can benefit from these simple food safety guidelines.
The first rule is a bit of a no-brainer but warrants stating nonetheless: do not eat anything that has been left unrefrigerated for more than two hours. Bacteria grow rapidly at temperatures between 40° F and 140° F and can double in number every 20 minutes. So unless you attend the University of Alaska Anchorage and live outdoors, discard all perishable food left at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.
The second rule is the easiest to remember and perhaps the most important in practical application: keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Holding food at unsafe temperatures is the prime cause of foodborne illness. To avoid exposing your food to harmful bacteria, make sure to keep hot foods above 140° F and cold foods below 40° F when storing them for later consumption. For example, if you cook a meal of chicken and pasta for dinner but have to leave because you forgot to put your laundry in the dryer, keep your chicken stored at 140° if you plan to eat before properly refrigerating it. The same idea applies to cold food. Therefore, if you plan on storing food in the refrigerator, the refrigerator must be kept at a temperature below 40° F. You can easily monitor the temperature of your refrigerator by keeping a thermometer in the front of the fridge (you can find one for five dollars on Amazon.com). Leftover food that has been properly stored in the refrigerator generally keeps for 3 to 4 days; food stored in the freezer for 1 to 2 months.
When reheating refrigerated or frozen food, cook all leftovers to 165°F and never reheat food more than once. It is also important to never partially cook food. A microwave can be a college student’s best friend, but it can also be tricky to safely use. When defrosting meat, poultry, egg products, and fish in a microwave, it’s important to cook the food immediately out of the microwave as some of the frozen food may begin to cook during the defrosting time. If you prefer to defrost frozen meat without a microwave, let the food thaw in the refrigerator and not on the counter. This greatly reduces the possibility of cross-contamination by preventing the raw meat or poultry juice from coming into contact with other foods.
When actually cooking food in the microwave, allow the food to stand for 2 minutes after cooking so that all parts of the food reach the right temperature. It’s important to use a thermometer to gauge the internal temperature – the food may feel hot on the outside while remaining uncooked on the inside. If the thermometer reads lower than 165° F, microwave it for a bit longer – there’s nothing worse than biting into a frozen center (except maybe the salmonella poisoning you can contract from improperly microwaving leftover chicken).
For those of you who like to cook your own food, be sure to cook your meat to the necessary temperature. Different kinds of meat require different safe minimum internal temperatures, so it is essential to use a food thermometer (also five dollars on Amazon.com) to gauge the meat’s internal temperature. Beef, veal, and lamb steaks need to be cooked to 145° F, ground meat of the same to 160° F; all cuts of pork to 160° F; and all poultry to a minimum temperature of 160° F. It is especially important to take the internal temperature when grilling meat, as the grill can cause the meat to brown prematurely. While cooking, remember to limit the risk of cross-contamination by thoroughly cleaning and separating utensils and cooking surfaces with hot, soapy water.
Finally, use common sense. If any food shows signs of spoilage such as discoloration, presence of mold, or bad odors, toss it out. Additionally, remember to wash your hands after using the restroom and before you eat (it might also be helpful to keep a bottle of hand sanitizer handy). Obstinacy and unawareness are not worth the risk of foodborne illness, so always be mindful of proper food safety practices.
“Food Safety 101: USDA Offers Food Safety Tips For College Students.” FSIS News Releases. USDA, 24 Aug. 2005. Web. 9 Oct. 2009. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/NR_082405_01/index.asp.
“Advice for College Students: How to avoid food poisoning.” College Students and Food Safety. Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health, 2 Aug. 2004. Web. 9 Oct. 2009. http://www.simmons.edu/hygieneandhealth/Microsoft%20Word%20-%20College%20students%20&%20food%20safety_.pdf.