Eating Safely

Keep Food Safe

Eating safely means making sure the food you consume is properly handled, prepared, and stored. It also means knowing when not to eat certain foods. Many older adults are used to cooking for themselves, while others, such as recent widowers, may have little cooking experience. It is important for anyone who handles food or cooks their own meals to know how to keep food safe and avoid foodborne illness.

Four Basic Steps

When preparing foods, follow four basic steps.

  • Clean -- Wash hands and surfaces often.
  • Separate -- Don’t cross-contaminate.
  • Cook -- Cook to safe temperatures.
  • Chill -- Refrigerate promptly.

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Wash hands and surfaces often. Bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, counter tops, and food.

To ensure that your hands and surfaces are clean, be sure to do the following.

  • Wash hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, handling pets, coughing or sneezing, tending to the sick or injured, and handling garbage. Hand washing is especially important after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot soapy water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry, and seafood products and preparation of any other food that will not be cooked.
  • As an added precaution, sanitize cutting boards and countertops by rinsing them in a solution made of one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water, or, as an alternative, you may run the plastic board through the wash cycle in your automatic dishwasher. Also, use hot, soapy water to clean up spills in the refrigerator. Some bacteria can still grow slowly at refrigerator temperatures.
  • Use paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. If using cloth towels, you should wash them often in the hot cycle of the washing machine.
  • Wash produce. Rinse fruits and vegetables, and rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten.
  • Unlike fruits and vegetables, raw meats, poultry and seafood should not be washed. Washing these raw foods might get rid of some bacteria but can increase the chance of spreading bacteria to other foods, surfaces, and utensils. Cooking these foods to a safe internal temperature will destroy any bacteria on the food.
  • With canned good, remember to clean lids before opening.


  • Don’t cross contaminate. Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria are spread from one food product to another. This is especially common when handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. The key is to keep these foods—and their juices—away from ready-to-eat foods.

To prevent cross-contamination, remember to do the following.

  • Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags, and in your refrigerator.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs without first washing the plate with hot, soapy water.
  • Don’t reuse marinades used on raw foods unless you bring them to a boil first.
  • Consider using one cutting board only for raw foods and another only for ready-to-eat foods, such as bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, and cooked meat.


Cook to safe temperatures. Foods are safely cooked when they are heated to the USDA-FDA recommended safe minimum internal temperatures, listed below.

To ensure that your foods are cooked safely, always do the following.

  • Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods. The color of food is not a reliable indicator of safety or doneness. Check the internal temperature in several places to make sure that the meat, poultry, seafood, or egg product is cooked to safe minimum internal temperatures.
  • Cook all raw beef, lamb, pork, and veal steaks, roasts, and chops to 145 °F with a 3-minute rest time after removal from the heat source before carving or consuming.
  • Cook ground beef to at least 160 °F and ground poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
  • Reheat fully cooked hams packaged at a USDA-inspected plant to 140 °F. For fully cooked ham that has been repackaged in any other location or for leftover fully cooked ham, heat to 165 °F.
  • Cook seafood to 145 °F. Cook shrimp, lobster, and crab until they turn red and the flesh is pearly opaque. Cook clams, mussels, and oysters until the shells open. If the shells do not open, do not eat the seafood inside.
  • Cook eggs until the yolks and whites are firm. Use only recipes in which the eggs are cooked or heated to 160 °F.
  • Bring sauces, soups, and gravy to a boil when reheating. Heat other leftovers to165 °F.
  • Reheat hot dogs, luncheon meats, bologna, and other deli meats until steaming hot or 165 °F.
  • When cooking in a microwave oven, cover food, stir, and rotate for even cooking. If there is no turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking. Always allow standing time, which completes the cooking, before checking the internal temperature with a food thermometer. Food is done when it reaches the USDA-FDA recommended safe minimum internal temperatures listed above.

Learn more about cooking your food thoroughly at


Refrigerate promptly. Cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Keeping a constant refrigerator temperature of 40 °F or below is one of the most effective ways to reduce risk of foodborne illness. Use an appliance thermometer to be sure the refrigerator temperature is consistently 40 °F or below and the freezer temperature is 0 °F or below.

To chill foods properly, do the following.

  • Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and other perishables. Never let these foods sit at room temperatures for more than two hours before storing in the refrigerator or freezer. Refrigerate within 1 hour if the temperature outside is above 90 °F.
  • Discard any food left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours—1 hour if the temperature was above 90 °F.
  • Don't keep refrigerated leftovers more than 3 to 4 days. Even if the food looks and smells fine, it may not be safe to eat after that time. If you question the safety of any food, throw it out without tasting it.
  • Never thaw food at room temperature, such as on the counter top. It is safe to thaw food in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. If you thaw food in cold water or in the microwave, you should cook it immediately.
  • For faster thawing, put the frozen food in a leak-proof plastic bag and immerse it in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes, and cook the food immediately after thawing. You can also thaw food in a microwave if you plan to cook it right away.
  • Divide large amounts of food into shallow containers for quicker cooling in the refrigerator.

See this tip sheet on how to store cold food.