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Food safety for students living on their own

February 20, 2009

Written by Daniel Woo, food science & human nutrition student. Originally published in the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition's "Safe Food News" newsletter.

Don't be short on time for health

College is a fast paced atmosphere where every minute matters. With the constant demand for meals on the go, many students may not be aware of proper food storage and handling techniques.

The importance of storing perishable items in the refrigerator and washing hands before handling food should be common knowledge for most college students. However, they may be unaware of other situations where further precautionary steps are necessary.

Buying and storing

The first trip to the grocery store on your own is a big step for any college student. By placing meats in separate bags from other food items, the risk of cross contamination is lowered.

Cold items should be purchased last and groceries with perishable items should be taken home within an hour. Remember to cook your meats to an internal temperature of at least 165º F. A thermometer can be your best friend when it comes to food safety.

The microwave is your savior

Microwaving is an invaluable cooking tool for college students. Following all instructions given on the package for frozen, prepared meals and other frozen products is essential when preparing foods in the microwave oven. Cooking for maximum times, covering, stirring, and allowing the recommended standing time for further cooking will ensure proper heating.

When thawing food in the microwave, make sure to remove food from its packaging and cook the thawed food as soon as possible. Thawing should always be done in the refrigerator. Leaving thawed food at room temperatures could allow pathogens to grow and cause foodborne illnesses.

Attending campus events

Going to a departmental potluck or tailgating at a football game is another situation where extra precautions should be taken to avoid contaminated foods. It is important to store perishable food in coolers at temperatures below 40º F. Make sure ice is properly placed to allow uniform cooling.

If taking hot food, such as soup, pre-heat the thermos or other thermal container with boiling water for a couple minutes, drain, then fill the container with the desired food. As always, be sure to check the temperature of your food often, making sure it does not drop below 140º F.

Microorganisms of concern grow best at temperatures between 40-140º F . Also, bring plenty of clean utensils and moist towelettes containing alcohol for easy cleanup and to help reduce the potential for cross-contamination.

Leftover safety

If you are lucky enough to have leftovers, either from ordering pizza or from actually cooking a meal, they also have to be dealt with safely. The golden rule is to store leftovers not eaten within two hours in shallow containers in the refrigerator. If left out for more than two hours, it is best to just throw the food away.

Leftovers are safe for about one to three days in the refrigerator while frozen leftovers should be safe for about one to two months.

Out with the bad

Finally, always remember that if you think a food item has been mishandled, it's best to just throw it away. It is not worth missing an important exam because of food poisoning.

Contact: Anh Ha
Phone: (970) 491-4161