NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Food Safety Tips for College Students

Food Safety Tips for College Students


When students pack up for college, they take along the basics - TV, laptop, MP3 player and cell phone. Many students will also arrive at school with a microwave oven, mini-fridge and toaster-oven in tow all ready to prepare everything from meals to midnight snacks.  Also, every fall, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 receives many calls from parents or students with questions about the handling and storage of food for college kids.

Here is a sampling of those questions about how to safely cook and prepare foods while away at school.

Q. Several slices of pizza have been left out overnight. Is the pizza still safe to eat?

A. No. Perishable food should never be left out of refrigeration more than two hours. This is true even if there are no meat products on the pizza. Food borne bacteria that may be present on these foods grow fastest at temperatures between 40 and 140 °F and can double in number every 20 minutes.

Other take-out or delivered foods such as chicken, hamburgers, cut fruit, salads, and party platters, must also be kept at a safe temperature. The rule is to "Keep HOT Food HOT and COLD Food COLD!" To keep hot foods safe, keep them at 140 °F or above. Cold food must be kept at 40 °F or below (in the refrigerator or freezer). Bacteria grow rapidly between 40 and 140 °F. Discard all perishable food left at room temperature longer than 2 hours; 1 hour in air temperatures above 90 °F. Use safely refrigerated food in 3 to 4 days; frozen leftovers, 1 to 2 months.

Q. I am living off campus this year. My two roommates and I will be preparing our own meals. What do we need to know to cook food safely?

A. When using frozen meats, thaw them in the refrigerator - NOT on the counter. Don't allow raw meat or poultry juices to drip on other foods. Wash your hands before and after preparing foods. Always use clean paper towels. Wash used cutting boards and utensils in hot, soapy water.

Use a food thermometer to check internal temperatures. Cook meat and poultry to the following safe minimum internal temperatures:

Beef, veal, and lamb steaks, roasts, and chops may be cooked to 145 °F.

All cuts of pork, 160 °F.                                                        

Ground beef, veal and lamb to 160 °F.

All poultry should reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.

If you feel food has not been handled safely, throw it out.

Q. I don't have a car on campus so I have to take the bus to get my groceries. Will the food be safe by the time I get it to my apartment?

A. Whether you use public transportation or have your own car, it's important that perishable purchases are refrigerated within 2 hours (1 hour when the temperature is above 90 °F). First, when buying food, avoid cross-contamination by placing raw meat, poultry, and seafood in plastic bags and keep them separate from other foods in your grocery-shopping cart. Make cold foods the last items you place in your cart. After your purchases are bagged, go home immediately.

If you can't get home within the recommended times, you may want to take a cooler with frozen gel packs to keep perishable food safe in transit. If there are perishable raw meats you don't plan on using soon, freeze any ground meats, poultry or fish within 2 days; beef, pork, veal or lamb steaks, roasts or chops within 3 to 5 days.

Q. Our dorm has a kitchen with a microwave on each floor. When I microwave the food according to the package's instructions, it's still partly frozen. Why doesn't it get hot enough?

A. In a large building like a dorm, electrical equipment such as computers, toaster-ovens, hair dryers and irons compete for current and reduce the electrical wattage of a microwave. A community oven that has been used just before you, will cook slower than a cold oven. To compensate, set the microwave for the maximum time given in the instructions. Cover foods during cooking. Remember to stir or rearrange food and rotate the dish. Allow for standing time. The food continues to cook during this period. Finally, use a food thermometer to ensure the food reaches the safe internal temperature of 165 °F. If the food has not reached that temperature or is not steaming hot, add more cooking time.

Q. What containers are safe for microwaving foods?

A. Plastic cold-storage containers such as margarine tubs, take-out containers, whipped topping bowls, and other one-time use containers should not be used in microwave ovens. These containers can warp or melt, possibly causing harmful chemicals to migrate into the food.

Microwave plastic wraps, wax paper, cooking bags, parchment paper, and white microwave-safe paper towels should be safe to use. Do not let plastic wrap touch foods during microwaving. Never use thin plastic storage bags, brown paper or plastic grocery bags, newspapers, or aluminum foil in the microwave oven.

Q. How do you thaw frozen foods in the microwave safely?

A. Remove food from packaging before defrosting. Do not use foam trays and plastic wraps because they are not heat stable at high temperatures. Melting or warping may cause harmful chemicals to migrate into food. Cook meat, poultry, egg casseroles, and fish immediately after defrosting in the microwave oven because some areas of the frozen food may begin to cook during the defrosting time. Do not hold partially cooked food to cook later.

Q. I don't have time to go to the dining hall for lunch. How can I safely pack a lunch to eat between

A. Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping perishable food cold, but metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can also be used. If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food. An ice source, such as a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box, should be packed with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box. Of course, if there's a refrigerator available, store perishable items there upon arrival.

It's important to keep perishable food cold. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the "Danger Zone" - the temperatures between 40 and 140 °F. So, perishable food transported without an ice source won't stay safe long. Prepackaged combos that contain luncheon meats along with crackers, cheese, and condiments must also be kept refrigerated. This includes luncheon meats and smoked ham that are cured or contain preservatives.

Q. My daughter's college is only a four-hour drive away, so she comes home often. How can I safely pack home-cooked foods for her to take back to school?

A. For a four-hour drive, food must be handled properly to keep it safe from spoilage and pathogenic bacteria. Cooked foods should be divided into shallow containers and cooled in the refrigerator prior to the trip. To transport the food, place it in an insulated cooler packed with several inches of ice, frozen gel packs, or containers of frozen water. Add the cold containers of food from the refrigerator when she's ready to leave. Freezing foods prior to the return trip also helps keep food safe. Advise your daughter to refrigerate the food as soon as she arrives at college.


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