Grill season is here, and a fun afternoon with friends beats a trip to urgent care with a food-borne illness. Carly Zimmer, a registered dietitian-nutritionist with OSF HealthCare has a checklist to keep mealtime safe.

  • Zimmer says it all starts with good hygiene. Wash your hands, surfaces, tools and storage containers as needed. Hands should be washed for 20 seconds with soap and warm water. Tools and surfaces (like a spatula, cutting board or plate) that touched raw meat should be thoroughly washed with hot, soapy water to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Thaw meat on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator (Zimmer says this takes about 24 hours), in cold water (this takes about one hour for a one-pound package of meat, and you should switch out the water every 30 minutes) or in the microwave.

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“You want to cook the meat right after you microwave it. In the microwaving process, you might actually start to cook the meat,” Zimmer says. “We want to avoid foods staying in the temperature range of 40 to 140 degrees. That’s what we call the ‘danger zone’ where bacteria are more likely to grow rapidly.”

Zimmer recommends checking the meat packaging to see how long to thaw it in the microwave.

  • Having a food thermometer isn’t a bad idea, Zimmer says.

“The color and texture of food doesn’t necessarily indicate how ‘done’ it is or how safe it is,” Zimmer says.

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Steak, pork or fish should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Then, let the meat rest for three minutes so the inner part fully cooks. Ground meat should be cooked to 160 degrees. Poultry like chicken or turkey should be cooked to 165 degrees.

  • During your meal, keep hot foods hot (like in a crock pot) and cold foods cold (fill a larger bowl with ice and put the smaller bowl with the food on top of the ice).
  • Don’t let food sit out for more than two hours or one hour if it’s in a place over 90 degrees, like a hot car or an outdoor picnic. Instead, refrigerate it promptly.
  • When putting away big dishes, like a hefty serving of soup, parse it out into smaller, more shallow containers and let it cool down before refrigerating. Zimmer says this reduces the time the food spends in the “danger zone” of rapid bacteria growth.
  • After three to four days, ditch those refrigerated leftovers. If you want to know about a specific food, Zimmer points to a website and app run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) called FoodKeeper.

The consequences

Zimmer says not following these guidelines and coming down with a food-borne illness like salmonella, E. Coli and Listeria is no fun. Kids under five, pregnant women, adults over 65 and people with a compromised immune system are considered higher risk and should be especially careful. Symptoms of these illnesses mimic the stomach flu: upset stomach, diarrhea and vomiting. If you have these symptoms, see a health care provider.

Learn more

Visit the OSF HealthCare website for healthy recipes. HHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture also have food safety tips.