Restaurants and commercial kitchens get ratings for how sanitary their cooking spaces are, but homeowners? Not so much. "A lot of people make mistakes at home and don't even know it," says Rob Acquista, a public health inspector in Columbus, Ohio (who inspected our Editor-in-Cheif's kitchen a few years ago). That's probably because the people who run kitchens and grocery stores have to go through training courses to make sure they understand the FDA codes for how to limit cross-contamination and keep critters out of their food preparation areas, but we regular homeowners just do whatever we're used to doing.
As you can imagine, Acquista sees mistakes everywhere he goes — something that he admits could make him an unpopular dinner guest. "I don't say anything with my friends, but when I'm with my family, I'll give them reminders — hey, I don't want to get sick!" says Acquista. So we grilled him on the biggest issues he sees in home kitchens.
Here are the 10 scariest places in every kitchen — and what you can do to fix them.
1. The refrigerator door
"If you don't have a fridge thermometer, get one!" says Acquista. With all the opening and shutting, the refrigerator door is the warmest part of the fridge, often above the 41 degrees recommended to keep food safe — which means that foods stored there are vulnerable to growing bacteria. Keep the internal temperature set between 37 and 38 degrees and put your food thermometer on the door to make sure it's maintaining proper temps.
2. Refrigerator shelves and bins
"This is a huge cross-contamination issue: People will stack a pack of hamburger on top of the sodas and lettuce, spreading meat juice everywhere," says Acquista. The key in fridge shelves and bins is to keep food separated, and to wipe up any spills immediately.
3. Your cutting board
Another cross-contamination hot zone! Many people cut raw meat on their boards, then don't sanitize them before using the same boards to cut up fruit and vegetables. An easy fix: Use more than one cutting board when prepping dinner.
You've probably already heard us talk about how dirty sponges can actually be. With that in mind, Acquista says you shouldn't actually use sponges as the last step in your dishwashing. "They're fine for cleaning and scrubbing initially, but they don't sanitize." Be sure your cleaning process involves a sanitizing step (like running pots and pans under hot water) as the final step.
More on Sponges
5. Dish towels
Did you think your dish towels were clean and ready for drying dishes? They are if you've just pulled them out of the drawer — but if you've been using one to wipe your hands during meal prep, you're likely transferring bacteria onto the clean plates as you dry them. If you don't have a fresh towel ready to go, air-drying is best.
6. The sink
Yup, the sink is dirty, so make sure you're not doing any prep in the sink (for example, soaking lettuce leaves in a stopped-up sink to release debris). In addition to bacteria from all your food, "The sink is linked directly to the sewage, so it could be backed up without you even knowing it," says Acquista.
Get the steps: How To Clean Your Kitchen Sink
7. All the handles
Appliance handles, faucet handles, and cabinet knobs all suffer from the same plight: Touching them during food prep and bringing germs from raw meat (or that virus you're carrying without knowing it) with it. Be sure to wash your hands frequently before, during, and after food preparation to minimize spreading the bad stuff.
8. The floor
"No, I would never eat off my floor," says Acquista. Even if you have no plans to eat off your floor, either, you want to keep it free of debris so that you don't invite critters like ants, mice, or cockroaches into your kitchen. "Once you get them, it's hard to get rid of them."
9. Your leftovers
The riskiest part of saving leftovers is keeping their temperatures out of the "danger zone" (between 41 and 135 degrees), where bacteria thrive. So be sure to put extras into the fridge right away, and if you're making a big batch of something, like chili or soup, consider packaging it up in single-serve containers and chilling them in the freezer before moving them to the fridge. "It takes food a long time to cool in the fridge."
10. Inside your appliances
While the insides of appliances are not considered a hazard in terms of food safety — "These aren't considered a food contact surface," Acquista says — they are spots where a buildup of spills and food particles can attract critters. Make a practice of wiping them down regularly and staying on top of debris to keep it clean.
One last thing: Wash your hands! Before you start food prep, after handling raw foods, and before eating (especially if you're eating a food with your hands, like corn or chips). That's the best way to prevent for both cross-contamination and the spread of viruses.