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How to Handle and Store Food Safely

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So, you’ve made your favourite recipe of lasagne and although it went down well, you have some leftovers.  You don’t want to throw it in the bin as in your opinion that was the best lasagne you’ve ever made! But you’re now wondering how you can store it safely without getting food poisoning.   

In 2016 there were around 500,000 cases of food poisoning in the UK.  These cases were from known pathogens (bacteria, virus or other microorganism that can cause illness) and have been linked to lack of good hygiene when handling food and the incorrect way of storing it, either in the fridge or freezer.

And a lot of us are still unsure about the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates that we find on food.  It can all quite frankly be mind boggling at times.  But don’t worry, as we have put together this handy guide to make it clear as crystal!


Hands - We all know that we should always wash our hands before handling food, but how many of us actually do this? Next time you are about to prepare your lunch, stop and think about what you were just using your hands for and ask yourself if you’d like those germs to be transferred onto your food?  If that doesn’t make you reach for the anti-bac soap, then we don’t know what will.

You should also wash your hands if you are handling different food types, for example, picking up meat and then chopping vegetables, to stop bacteria from spreading from one food source to another.

Chopping boards and knives - It is a good idea to have different chopping boards and knives for different food items, as this will reduce the risk of cross-contamination.  You can easily make colour-coded kitchen utensils yourself, or there are many shops that sell them.  Joseph make a simple tab system set of chopping boards.  See here for more -

Washing food – It is still often thought that we should wash chicken before cooking it.  But by doing this you are spreading harmful bacteria across your kitchen via water splashing onto work surfaces, clothing and utensils.  This increases the risk of food poisoning from campylobacter.  This bacteria is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, affecting 280,000 people a year, including more than 100 deaths.  It is believed that 65% of the chicken sold in the UK carries this bacteria which can cause stomach cramps, severe diarrhoea, vomiting and a fever.

It is particularly important to wash fruit and vegetables before you eat them, to make sure that harmful bacteria like E. coli is removed.  Wash them under a running tap, rubbing away to remove any dirt.  If you are peeling the fruit or vegetable, then there is no need to wash it, but remember to wash your hands first.

Dates on food

Best before dates - You’ll usually find these types of dates on food items that will ‘spoil’, for example tinned or dried foods.  These dates are given purely so you can enjoy the food item at its best, not because you will get ill if you eat it after the given date.  Although it’s probably not a good idea to eat a tin of peaches from 1999!  

Use by dates - Use by dates are the most important dates to stick to, as they relate to food safety.  For example, you’ll see use by dates on food items including, meat, fish, and dairy products.  This is because if you eat these food items after the given date, then you are at risk of making you and your family ill.  There has been a lot of talk in the media of late about people being OK after eating food which has gone past it’s use by date, but the bottom line from the Food Standards Agency is – don’t do it!  Even if the food looks or smells fine.  It is not worth the risk, as nasties such as E. coli and salmonella may be present in the food.

Storing food

Check your fridge – To make sure that the food in your fridge is kept at the right temperature, your fridge needs to be kept at 5 degrees centigrade or just below. Any higher than this and you run the risk of your food ‘going off’ quicker and increasing the risk of food poisoning. 

Use different shelves for different food items – Always store cooked and uncooked meat, poultry and fish on different shelves in your fridge.  Raw meat should always be stored on the bottom shelf, to stop any blood drips going on other food. 

Clean your fridge – No one wants to store food in a dirty fridge, so make sure that you keep yours clean.  Give your fridge a ‘blitz’ once a month by taking out the shelves and washing them in hot soapy water.  Get rid of any food that has gone off or old jars of food.  This will not only keep your fridge looking tidy, but it also lessens the chance of you forgetting what food you have.

Read the labels – Always read the labels on food regarding storage.  If putting items in the fridge or the freezer, always check to make sure that they are at the correct temperature.

Storing left-overs safely

Cooling down food – When cooling food down, it is best to do it as quickly as possible and do not leave food cooling for more than two hours.  If you want to cool food down quickly then the simplest way to do it is to put it in an airtight box or bag and place it under a cold running tap.  Once it has cooled down, place it into the fridge or freezer immediately.  Do not put hot food into the fridge as this can raise it to a dangerously warm temperature. 

Mark items – This is especially important if you are cooking food and then putting it in the freezer.  Use a permanent marker pen to put the food that your storing, i.e. sausage casserole and the date that you made it.  It is always best to check your freezer handbook for information on how long you can store an item for.  

Store the food in the correct way – If you are freezing meat then make sure that it is covered fully or put it in a box and clearly labelled.  When freezing leftover food such as casseroles or soups then make sure that it is in an airtight container, so it does not leak onto other food items.

*Stats from NHS Live Well and Food Standards Agency