Storing and cooking food safely

You need to follow a few simple rules in order to ensure that your food is safe for you and others to eat, and to avoid accidents in the kitchen.

Safe food storage

Most of the food you buy in the UK gives instructions on the packaging on where to store it and for how long. As long as you follow these instructions, you should be confident that your food remains safe and good to eat.

  • Make sure you know the difference between use by and best before dates stamped on foods:
    • Use by dates appear on food which goes off quickly, such as meat and fish products; you should always follow these dates in order to avoid food poisoning.
    • Best before dates are used on a wide range of frozen, tinned, dried and other food. They are about quality rather than safety; the texture or flavour of these foods might deteriorate after the best before date, but you can continue to use them safely.
  • If you buy loose food which does not have use by dates, try to use raw fish within 1 or 2 days of purchase, and raw meat within 3 or 4 days of purchase (1 to 2 days for minced meat or chicken portions).

Using fridges

  • Fridges should be kept at a temperature of below 5°C.
  • Use them to store fresh food which would deteriorate quickly at room temperature, especially milk and dairy products, fish, meat and cooked food – the cool temperature helps to prevent the growth of bacteria.
  • Organise your fridge to prevent food-poisoning bacteria crossing from one food to another; wrap or cover items and, most importantly, store raw and cooked food, especially meat, separately. See this Good Housekeeping advice on how to organise the food in your fridge.
  • Raw meat should be kept at the bottom of the fridge in sealed containers to prevent touching or dripping onto other products.
  • Leave enough space in your fridge to ensure that the air can circulate and keep temperatures cool.
  • If you have leftovers to store after cooking, you should:
    • cool them as quickly as possible (90 minutes is recommended – spreading leftovers out over a large surface will help to speed up the cooling process) to avoid the warm temperatures at which bacteria multiply,
    • then store in a covered container in the fridge.
  • Putting hot food directly in the fridge will raise the general temperature, possibly to unsafe levels

Using freezers

  • Freezers help food to last longer and are very helpful in managing your food supplies.
  • If you have any fresh food which you do not think you will use by the use by date, store it in the freezer, unless the label specifically says that it cannot be frozen.
  • Some foods are safe to cook straight from the freezer, others need to be defrosted first. Check the instructions.
  • If food needs to be defrosted, make sure it is completely defrosted before using it.
  • Always follow the defrosting and cooking instructions on the relevant product.
  • If there is no label (for example, because you have frozen home-made food), then you should always defrost completely before using it. Read this article about how long it is safe to store different frozen foods.
  • Defrosting can be done in the fridge overnight, or if you are short of time, can safely be done in the microwave in a few minutes using the ‘defrost’ setting.

Using cupboards and larders

  • You can use kitchen cupboards to store food that has a long ‘shelf-life’ of months or years, such as tins, jars, bottles and packets. Here is some advice on keeping store cupboard essentials.
  • Keep these cupboards as cool as possible.
  • Try to store older food at the front, so that it is used up first; put your new purchases at the back of the cupboard.
  • Many products stored in tins, jars and bottles start to deteriorate once the container is opened, so the label will advise you to keep them in the fridge after opening.
  • Opened contents of tins should be stored in a non-metallic bowl to avoid possible metal contamination.

Washing hands and equipment

  • To avoid the transmission of bacteria, wash your hands in warm soapy water:
    • before you begin to cook anything and
    • before and after handling raw meat.
  • Scrub down and wash anything – knives, chopping boards, kitchen surfaces – that has been in contact with raw chicken. Read this Good Housekeeping article about preparing chicken safely.

Cooking thoroughly

  • Always follow the instructions on pre-prepared products, especially frozen and chilled, to make sure that the food is properly cooked.
  • For fresh food, follow the recipes carefully, especially when they involve pork, chicken or minced meat products – these should be fully cooked so that you cannot see any red meat or juices.

Avoiding accidents in the kitchen

  • Use oven gloves and an apron to protect yourself.
  • Cut and slice things on a flat, balanced surface.
  • Don’t leave knives blade-side-up or where they can be knocked over.
  • Don’t leave metal spoons in pans of hot food or liquid (they will get very hot and may burn you).
  • Don’t leave pan handles sticking out where you can knock into them.
  • Practise your knife skills, slowly at first.
  • Take care when carrying hot pans of boiling liquid (for example, to drain pasta into a colander in the sink).