How to Prevent Your Kids from Getting Food Poisoning
About 48 million people fall victim to the unpleasant illness each year. Follow these six steps to keep unwanted germs out of your food.
Each year, 1 in 6 Americans get food poisoning — a figure that includes children.
Young people’s bodies are more susceptible to the toxic organisms that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever, says Alison Tribble, M.D., a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
Contamination happens when bacteria or viruses (from sources such as animal feces or dirty water) come into contact with food items. Improper storage is also a culprit.
It’s a concern many parents know all too well.
More than two-thirds of parents whose children had contracted food poisoning believe they got it from eating at a restaurant, according to the latest University of Michigan C.S. Mott National Poll on Children’s Health. Slightly fewer than one-third of respondents cited spoiled or contaminated food consumed at home as the source.
But the poll also found that most families take precautions: Many respondents said they wash their hands before preparing food (87 percent), check expiration dates on refrigerated foods (84 percent) and wash all produce (80 percent).
Depending on the amount and type of pathogen involved — including E. coli, norovirus and salmonella — the arrival time and length of symptoms will vary. Recovery usually doesn’t require hospitalization or even a doctor visit; bed rest and plenty of fluids are advised.
“If you’re concerned, call your doctor for advice,” Tribble says.
Fortunately, the pesky illness can often be prevented.
Tribble shared simple steps that families can take to reduce the risk before and after a meal.
Tips to prevent food poisoning
Keep raw foods cold: Bacteria don’t replicate well below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure, then, to keep your refrigerator at that temperature to store meat, eggs and produce — and use it to defrost frozen items instead of putting them on the counter to thaw. “When meat sits out for a long time, bacteria can be replicating, even if the middle is still frozen,” says Tribble.
Avoid cross-contamination: Use separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables to limit exposure of bacteria to raw produce or other items. Be sure to clean counters, cutting boards and any related utensils with hot, soapy water before and after prep. Raw produce also can harbor the bacteria, Tribble says, so rinse all fruits and vegetables before chopping or serving.
Cook meat properly: To kill all bacteria, make sure meat is heated to the right internal temperature. That’s 165 degrees Fahrenheit for ground beef, 160 degrees for chicken and 145 degrees for whole cuts of meat such as beef and pork. Use a meat thermometer, not your eyes, to verify doneness: “It’s better to rely on temperature than the look of the meat,” Tribble says.
Don’t leave leftovers out: Whether it’s picnic food or restaurant takeout, refrigerate the items after they’ve been exposed to open air for more than two hours (and store them even sooner in warm weather). The reason: Bacteria can grow and multiply in a short amount of time — a particular risk if food is already contaminated from improper cooking or unclean hands.
Check for health code violations: The setup and sanitation of a restaurant kitchen is often out of sight to dining patrons. Consider reviewing health department inspection records of a given establishment; the reports look for proper temperature storage and overall cleanliness, among other things. Tribble also advises checking a child’s food to ensure items appear well-cooked.
Wash your hands: The easiest way to prevent foodborne illness? Basic hygiene. “Hand-washing is really the most important thing to teach your kids,” says Tribble, noting that the process should last at least 20 seconds and involve hand soap. That’s especially key after using the restroom (and before cooking or eating) to keep bacteria and viruses from spreading to hands and food.