The repercussions of an unhealthy, unsanitary kitchen seem to be universally known. When eating out for dinner, most of us care (at least a little, if not a lot) about the cleanliness of where our food comes from that night. We inspect meals and double-wipe silverware. We feel uncomfortable if our cashier or server has a noticeable cough or cold, and we stay on the lookout for bugs. A single fly buzzing around an indoor eatery can be enough to send up red flags—all of these gut instincts are for good reason, as the kitchen’s potential for contamination and infection spread is exceptional.
Not only do some raw and contaminated foods present a significant grouping of bacteria, viruses, and parasites if not handled and cooked properly, there is also the important issue of human contact working against kitchen cleanliness. These threats together make sanitizing the kitchen to prevent contamination and infection crucial, even at home. Illness can be caused and spread within any kitchen, and residential kitchens are just as affected by touching, sneezing, improper food handling, and germ spreading like any other.
Keeping ourselves and our home-families safe and healthy relies on our food safety habits and a regular effort towards both cleaning and disinfecting.
When it comes to food, there are many potential sources of contamination. Foodborne illness can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, nausea, fever, fatigue, dehydration, gas, headaches—and that’s just to name a few of the unpleasant options. Mishandling of food can also spread inter-household illnesses from one person to another, which may have their own unique and terrifying symptoms.
E.coli, the most serious of the bacteria that can be contracted from raw fish, chicken, and other meats such as ground beef, is the top cause of foodborne illness. Bacteria, such as salmonella, can come from chicken, turkey, and other poultry. Seafood presents its own bacteria as well, along with potential hepatitis A contamination. Fruits and vegetables are also at risk, with E.coli also often presenting in cases of tainted lettuce. Regardless of whether the source is carnivorous, vegetarian, or even vegan and organic, all foods need to be washed, handled and prepared properly to eliminate the risk of spreading these illnesses.
Being clean is at the top of the contamination prevention list. It is critical to wash our hands before and after we touch food, as well as after dealing with germ-ridden tasks like using the bathroom or helping someone in need with using the bathroom, playing with and touching pets and their toys, taking care of sick people, and any of your own coughing, sneezing, or nose or eye touching. Use plain soap, warm water, and count for at least 20 seconds while scrubbing all over the front and back of hands in between fingers and around fingernails.
You can use hot, soapy water to clean cooking prep surfaces, paying special attention to those areas that come into contact with raw meats, poultry, and seafood, along with any raw egg. If you use non-disposable rags or towels for cleaning, do not forget that they, too, can become a source for bacteria. After using them to thoroughly clean, be sure that they get their own hot water cycle through the washing machine.
Note that cleaning is not the same as disinfecting, both of which are important when it comes to maintaining our kitchen’s tools and surfaces. This maintenance is the other key element to health and safety, beyond food handling. Some bacteria may be cleaned up, along with residual cooking grease and debris, but disinfecting is what will truly eliminate bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Disinfecting is the “sanitization” part of the process. Once your kitchen looks clean (surfaces are wiped, items are put away, and the floor is clean), some items may also need to be disinfected with a disinfecting spray, wipe, or home solution. Items to consider disinfecting include: can openers, countertops, floors, sink drains and basins, any handles and buttons on the microwave and refrigerator, and cutting boards.
With cutting boards and wherever else possible, try to keep meats separate from your fruits and veggies. While cooking, never use a utensil that has touched raw meat on anything else. Be sure that the cleaners you select for any purpose are appropriate and non-damaging to the material they will be applied to. The wrong cleaner might cause damage to the surface, actually creating greater potential for bacteria to deposit there.
When it comes to dealing with dishes in general, keep in mind that sponges and towels can become thriving grounds for lots of bacteria and germs, so it is a good idea to keep potential sources of contamination and infection separate, even in the washing process. Overusing sponges and towels without cleaning them will reduce the effectiveness of dishwashing, as well. In fact, using a dish towel to dry clean dishes has been proven to be the least effective way to maintain sanitization.
Thankfully, there is no advantage or disadvantage to household size when it comes to contamination and infection, so long as safety precautions are taken. A two-person household is equally at risk for foodborne and person-to-person illness contraction as a six-person household if they are not cleaning and disinfecting regularly. Obviously, it is much more difficult for a single person to be in charge of this responsibility. However, with increased household size, so be sure to get everyone involved!
Create a sanitization station with easy access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes. Ask kids to sanitize their hands (or, if possible, wash with plain soap and warm water) when entering and leaving the kitchen space. If they eat or work on a craft, have them use a wipe to clean the area they utilized, and teach about germ prevention and proper handwashing. Utilize disinfecting sprays and keep tissues on-hand during cold and flu seasons, as the kitchen is typically a very high-traffic area, perfect for passing these germs around.
When handling raw meats, cleaning, and disinfecting, be aware of your surroundings; sprays and spills often go a lot farther than we imagine, and no one wants to bite into the skin of an apple and taste glass cleaner. To ensure a deep, sanitary clean without any collateral damage, remove any food, silverware, plates, and other materials out of the potential line of fire while cleaning and replace them when surfaces are dry.
With these tips, you can enjoy a happy, safe, and sanitary kitchen, year-round!