Luis Delgadillo is a member of the Food Safety Education Staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Finding time for the family can be difficult when parents and kids have hectic and demanding schedules. But small moments of family time can be carved out in the kitchen, where families can share special recipes and bond. Those precious moments can be especially important to people diagnosed with cancer or who are receiving cancer treatment.
You may think that inviting children into the kitchen will be a recipe for trouble, but kids can learn some age-appropriate tasks that may help reduce dinnertime stress. Start with the basics: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill. Knowing this routine can set them on the path for a lifetime of food safety.
Clean. Before kids help in the kitchen, be sure they know when and how to properly wash their hands. Hands should be washed with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. To remember how long 20 seconds lasts, kids should sing “Happy Birthday to You” twice.
Children (and adults) should wash their hands:
After handling pets
After using the bathroom
Before, during, and after handling raw meat and poultry
After handling medications, so none of the residue from the medications ends up in the food
With proper supervision, children can also be a part of the cleaning crew. Using safe, nontoxic cleaning supplies like soap and water, kids can help parents clean as they go by monitoring dirty countertops, sink areas, and dishes.
Separate. If you’re thinking about having your kids help with preparing meals, take extra precautions with raw meats. Raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood should be kept away from foods that will not be cooked. Raw meats can contain harmful pathogens that can lead to foodborne illnesses. Try starting out with washing fruits and vegetables and give children the responsibility of keeping these ingredients separate from raw meats. This will start to reinforce the importance of preventing cross-contamination. Give your child their own cutting board or bowl to hold the fruits and veggies. This puts them in control of one of the most important food safety steps: Separate.
Cook. Kids can learn about the importance of the cooking process if you teach them about safe minimum internal temperatures and rest times for different types of meat, poultry, egg, and seafood dishes. Cooking these foods to the correct minimum internal temperature kills potentially harmful bacteria. It also helps make sure they are not overcooked.
Chill. Task children with monitoring how long perishable foods have been in the “danger zone.” The danger zone is the range of temperature between 40°F (4°C) and 140°F (60°C), where bacteria multiply rapidly. Because the bacteria can grow so quickly, do not leave perishable foods out for more than 2 hours. During meal preparation, parents should identify the perishable foods while kids enforce the 2-hour rule. After the meal, children can then be in charge of putting leftovers in the fridge or freezer. They will also love learning about the difference between storing foods in the fridge and the freezer. Most foods can be safely stored in the freezer for a long time. In the refrigerator, leftovers with meat, fish, poultry, or egg only stay safe for 3 to 4 days.
Introducing kids to the basics of food safety and giving them some hands-on experience will give them kitchen confidence. Food safety doesn’t have to be a job exclusively for grownups.
If you have any questions or would like to order some of USDA’s educational materials, call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE (1-888-674-6854) or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also chat live with a USDA food safety specialist at AskUSDA, available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish.