Thousands of young adults fly the nest this season as halls of residences up and down the country fill up with students. Many of them are now settling into university life and will be responsible for preparing their own food which should not be a big deal if they've picked up a skill or two at home. Two things, however, are very different. They are now sharing a kitchen with complete strangers (who will admittedly become their friends in a week or so) and they do not have a parent over-seeing the hygiene arrangements. This presents a few problems so here are my 5 food hygiene tips for freshers that I hope will keep them well.
Top 5 food hygiene tips for freshers
1. Do not reheat take-away food
The obvious option for cash-strapped students! It saves them from having to buy another meal and avoids any sort of washing up. If they don't get up until after lunch-time, chicken tikka masala or pepperoni pizza is an entirely appropriate meal to start the day. Plus they have probably forgotten eating it the night before if they had a few too many beers in the student union bar. Tempting as it may be - don't do it!
This food has spent the last twelve hours on the arm of the sofa/bottom of the bed/ lounge floor at that nice warm temperature that pathogens love and so by the time you come to eat it for the second time there could be millions of them. Yes, you can try to blast them with your shiny new microwave but you will not necessarily reach them all and will have no chance of getting rid of heat stable toxins. Chuck the take-away and head out for a fry up.
2. Treat raw chicken as if it is nuclear waste
This should apply to all meat but I have picked on chicken because it is a fairly cheap meat that comes in conveniently small portions and so is popular with students. Whilst stereotyping is quite rightly frowned upon in almost all walks of life, it is perfectly acceptable in food hygiene. Raw chicken is the bad guy and you are perfectly within your rights to assume that every piece of raw chicken is contaminated with bugs that can make you very ill. Don't handle it much. Don't put it on lots of surfaces. Do keep it wrapped up in its plastic tray and then empty it straight into the pan that you are cooking it in. Then chuck the wrapping straight in the bin and wash your hands.
3. Protect your cooked food
If raw chicken is the bad guy, cooked food is the vulnerable victim. It needs protection. Anything that goes straight into your mouth without going via the hob/oven/microwave falls into this category. Cover it up, put it in a sealed bowl. Buy cling film - lots of it. If it is not covered up you do not know what your flat mates may accidentally drop on it or drag across it.
4. Wash it before you use it
In an ideal kitchen, all utensils, cutlery, chopping boards and plates would be meticulously washed straight after use and put away. This is not what is going to happen in most student kitchens. Instead, you will find a chopping board skulking under three saucepans and a wok next to the sink. You do not know what it has been used for so make assumptions and always think the worse. It may have been used to chop raw meat so don't just grab it and use it. Wash it first.
5. Keep it cold
Fridges in student accommodation are mainly used for beer, chocolate and tomato ketchup. They may not be big enough for everyone to get all their food in. You need to adopt a night club-like priority system. Things like cooked ham and pasties are on the VIP list and get entry guaranteed. The jar of pickled onions may make it in if numbers are low but they shouldn't get their hopes up.
I have made light of this advice but food hygiene is no joke. I worked as an Environmental Health Officer for many years and have investigated countless outbreaks of food poisoning where people have had their lives ruined by food borne disease - much of it preventable.
You can read more on my blog After the Playground