Nutrition Column – Keeping Kids Safe in the Kitchen

Book bags and backpacks get quickly tossed aside and the munchies take over when kids burst through the door after school. If your child is home alone for an hour or two after school, how can you make sure their snacks are safe from foodborne bacteria and they are protected from dangers in the kitchen?

Whether it’s making cookies from scratch or heating soup in the microwave, it’s important for both kids and their parents to be aware of safety concerns. Tasting raw homemade cookie dough could lead to Salmonella poisoning and sometimes hospitalization. Heating soup in the microwave oven sounds safe enough, but if the cook isn’t tall enough to reach the microwave and spills hot soup on himself, serious burns could result.

Before letting kids have the run of the kitchen, it’s a good idea to plan a food safety workshop to show them some basic tips. For starters, the Partnership for Food Safety Education has developed the following quiz for parents and kids to take together.

True or False?

– Backpacks should be put on the floor, not on the counter.

– Washing your hands with warm water and soap washes bacteria down the drain.

– You need to wash fruits and vegetables under cold running water before eating.

– Cooked foods should not be put on the same plate that held raw meat or poultry (unless the plate has been thoroughly washed).

– Don’t leave leftovers on the counter for more than two hours.

– Always wash your hands after touching raw meat or poultry.

– Eating homemade cookie dough is not safe because it may contain raw eggs.

All are true statements. It’s important to help children learn the science behind these kitchen warnings. For example, learning how bacteria grow and cause foodborne illness can help kids understand WHY food needs to be put back in the refrigerator as soon as possible.

Additionally, children can learn to use a food thermometer to check for safety and doneness. In order to safely use a microwave oven, children must be able to read and understand directions. Important tips for using a microwave include the following.

– Do not use plastic containers such as margarine tubs or other one-time-use containers in the microwave. They can warp or melt, possibly causing harmful chemicals to get in the food.

– Do not use metal or aluminum foil containers in the microwave. They can get too hot and burn. – Use only glass and other containers that are labeled for microwave use.

– Cover a dish of food for microwaving with a lid or plastic wrap and wrap loose to let steam escape. The moist heat will help destroy harmful bacteria.

– Stir or rotate food midway through cooking to promote even cooking. If you don’t, you’ll have cold spots where harmful bacteria can survive.

– Reheat hot dogs until they are hot and steaming. Pierce hot dogs with a fork before putting them into the microwave oven to keep them from exploding.

– To prevent burns, carefully remove food from the microwave oven. Use potholders and uncover foods away from your face so steam can escape.

– Throw away leftovers (and any perishable food) that stays out longer than two hours – or one hour if it’s over 90 degrees F. When in doubt, throw it out!

Kid-friendly messages such as "Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill" offered by the FightBac Campaign can posted on the refrigerator. These and other education materials can be found on the Web at under the Partnership for Food Safety Education.  

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by Pat Kendall, R.D., Ph.D., Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension