It’s time to start thinking about school again and packing those school lunches. Much has been written about the safety of packing a lunch for school. Here are a few important points to consider.
- Use the right style of lunch box. It is important to have an insulated lunchbox to keep perishable foods like sandwiches cold enough to prevent bacterial growth. It is tempting to buy a lunch box based on a TV show or character. Make a wise decision based on food safety and don’t be tempted to give in to a popular style just because your child prefers the look of a lunch box.
- Wash the lunch box and containers daily. Use hot sudsy water and rinse well. This is another way to prevent bacterial growth in a lunch.
- Tell your child to dispose of uneaten food. Bacteria can grow in that half a sandwich leftover from lunch that is eaten on the school bus ride home.
- Include hand sanitizer or wipes in the lunch. Make it easy for your child to eat with clean hands.
Following these tips won’t guarantee a safe lunch but will increase the odds your child does not become sick from food borne illness.
Food Safety, Nutrition
There is nothing more frustrating than taking the time to pick, prepare, and can something and open the canner to find broken jars and wasted food. Here are the top 12 reasons your jar might break inside the canner.
- Using old jars. Antique canning jars are attractive but perhaps not the best choice for a product that is very labor intensive to prepare.
- Nicks or small cracks in the jar. Always check for small nicks or hairline cracks before filling jars.
- Not releasing trapped air bubbles inside the jar.
- Using metal utensils to release trapped air—this can cause scratches or weak spots inside the jar.
- Overfilled jars.
- Fluctuating pressure inside a pressure canner. Watch the gauge or listen to the “jiggle” of the weight to maintain a constant pressure.
- Reducing pressure too quickly. Resist the impulse to run cold water over the pressure canner after the processing time is up. That is a quick and easy way to destroy all your hard work.
- Placing hot jars into a canner of cold water.
- Forgetting to add water to the pressure canner.
- Forgetting to put the rack into the bottom of the canner. Jars bouncing around during processing are at a high risk of breaking.
- Setting your hot, already processed jars into a draft to cool.
- Screwing the bands onto the jars too tightly. Remember, finger-tight only.
Following canning directions carefully will help you avoid jar breakage.
Food Preparation, Food Preservation, Food Safety
During August, we get many calls and emails with canning questions. Here is our own top 10 list of canning questions.
- Someone in our family can’t have salt, is it ok to leave the salt out of home canned vegetables? YES the salt in these recipes does not help preserve the food.
- Someone in our family is diabetic; can I leave the sugar out of canned fruits? YES, fruit can be sweetened with artificial sweetener after the jar has been opened—if needed.
- I’ve opened a jar and discovered discoloration on the bottom side of the lid; is the food safe to eat? YES, probably. Acids and other compounds present in food can eat away at the underside of the lid and leave a dark spot. These foods are safe to eat.
- If my jar doesn’t seal, what should I do with the food? You have several options during the first 24 hours after canning. You can reprocess (open jars and refill to proper headspace, reprocess for entire recommended time), freeze the contents, or eat the food within 3-5 days. Refrigerate the jar until ready to eat.
- Is it really important to fill the jar according to the recipe? Is headspace really important? YES, the headspace is determined by the amount of expansion of the food inside the jar. Different foods have different headspace requirements. Too much food in the jar can cause loss of liquid inside the jar. Too much headspace can cause food darkening at the top of the jar. Either situation can cause failure of the jar to seal.
- How long can I store my home canned food? For best quality use your food within the first year after canning. Storage in warm spots, sunlight, or damp areas decreases food quality faster.
- Do I have to sterilize my jars? NO, if the canning process lasts longer than 10 minutes sterilizing jars before filling them is not necessary.
- My jars lost liquid during canning, should I open them and refill them? The lost liquid should NOT be refilled; food inside the jars remains safe but food outside the liquid will discolor over time. Choose to use these jars first. If more than half the liquid has been lost, refrigerate and use these jars in the next few days (2-3).
- I know that the jars are reusable, but can I reuse the bands and lids? YES for the bands, no for the flats (lids). The sealing compound will not seal well during a second use. Discard old lids.
And, finally one of the most popular questions we get every summer:
- My mom taught me to can using the open-kettle method; can I use this method today? NO, that method has not been recommended for over 40 years. You will not produce a safe product using this method. Choose scientifically tested recipes to produce a safe product.
Enjoy canning this summer. Remember that we are ALWAYS happy to help with your canning questions and problems.
Food Preservation, Food Safety
Do you struggle with what to make for dinner? Families today have very busy schedules and often we don’t think about what’s for dinner until it is time to eat. With a little planning you can have wonderful home cooked meals ready to take from the freezer, put in the oven and your family can be eating a in about an hour!
Here are a few helpful tips for preparing meals for the freezer.
- Pre cook meats and place it in freezer bags for quick meals like tacos or maid rites.
- If you are making casseroles freeze them before baking, especially when all of the ingredients are cooked.
- Undercook starchy ingredients like potatoes, rice and pasta when using them in a meal for the freezer.
- Freeze meals in portion sizes for the number of people in your family. If you have leftover freeze individual size meals in freezer bags for quick lunches.
- Freeze meals in the containers you plan to cook them in. Glass containers work well.
- Don’t freeze meals that include items that don’t freeze well such as boiled eggs, sour cream and mayonnaise.
- Seasoning intensity can change during freezing so season lightly. Cloves, pepper, garlic and celery become stronger upon freezing. Remember you can always add more seasonings when reheating.
- Make double batches and freeze one for later use.
- Let your family help! Many hands will make meal preparation go more quickly. Assign tasks to family members according to their age. You will help develop life-long skills and talents.
- If you are baking your casserole before freezing, cool it quickly. Also remember that shallow baking pans speed freezing and thawing of casseroles.
- To thaw casseroles before reheating, allow the casserole to stand in the refrigerator overnight. Then cook as directed in the recipe. If it is not completely thawed you may need to add 15 to 30 minutes to the cooking time.
- Fully cooked casseroles should not be thawed, but baked at 400°F for the time according to the recipe.
- Use frozen casseroles within three months for best quality. Be sure and label all of your meals with the cooking directions and the date that you put it in the freezer.
Planning ahead helps you to take control of your family dinners making meal time enjoyable for everyone!
Food Preparation, Food Safety
Vacuum sealers are machines that are marketed for vacuum packaging food at home. There are many different models available but these machines are intended to extend the storage time of refrigerated foods, dried foods and frozen foods. I bought one to use with freezing meats and leftovers to keep the quality better for a longer period of time. The benefit of removing the air before sealing is the increased storage time of refrigerated, dried and frozen foods. If the air is not removed, oxygen can cause fats to develop rancid flavors and change the food’s color, texture and flavor. Vacuum seal bags are designed to help keep meat and other foods fresh in the freezer by preventing the loss of moisture and the development of freezer burn.
What vacuum sealers do not do is make a product that needs to be refrigerated shelf stable. The removal of oxygen from a food package doesn’t eliminate all bacterial growth; it just changes the type of growth that can occur. Temperature control is critical for safe vacuum-storage. If foods that require refrigeration are vacuum sealed then left at room temperature, there is a risk of harmful bacteria growing and causing illness. This also means that frozen items that are vacuum sealed should be thawed in the refrigerator, NEVER on the counter.
To avoid risks when vacuum sealing follow these safe food handling tips:
- Vacuum sealing food does not replace the need to pressure can or water bath home canned foods that are stored at room temperature.
- Keep vacuum sealed perishable items that need refrigeration (fresh produce, meat and fish, semi-dried foods, and moist bakery items), in the refrigerator or freezer.
- Use a vacuum sealer to extend the shelf life of properly dried nuts, fruits and vegetables and meat jerky. The removal of the oxygen will help these foods continue to taste fresh.
- Wash your hands before and during the sealing process. Keep utensils, cutting boards and counters clean.
- Don’t allow the food you are vacuum sealing to be out of the refrigerator before or after you seal it.
Remember to always follow safe food handling practices and enjoy the benefits of vacuum sealing foods.
Food Safety, Household Equipment
One of the questions we often hear when folks are canning is: What is the difference between Hot Pack and Raw Pack? Obviously, the main difference is that one style involves totally raw food while the other method uses partially cooked food. Both styles of pack have benefits; select the best pack for the situation.
Raw Pack is often used when canning vegetables in the pressure canner. This is an easy method; clean and slice the fruit or vegetable and pack tightly into the jar. Air is often trapped between pieces of raw food and this air can be difficult to eliminate. Trapped air can cause a loss of liquid during the canning process, floating fruit, or discoloration of the food after a few months of storage.
Hot Pack foods are heated to a boil followed by simmering for about 5 minutes. Precooking shrinks the foods, allowing you to fit more food inside the jar. Air is not trapped inside the food (so fruit will not float) or between the pieces of food, which can cause loss of liquid in the jars. Also, the best quality of some foods, like pears, is obtained by using a hot pack.
No matter which pack you choose for your food, remember to always use boiling water, broth, or juice to fill the jars.
Food Preparation, Food Preservation, Food Safety
Summer canning time is one of my favorite times of the year. We get many calls from people learning to can or trying something new. It is fun to teach people proper canning methods. There are so many different options available to us with the recipes tested by the USDA, National Center for Home Food Preservation, Extension Resources, and the Ball Blue Books.
Pickled carrots are yet another way to serve a delicious and nutritious vegetable. Carrots that are small, young, and tender produce a great canned product. You may want to try pickling some of the first carrots you pull in the garden this summer. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has this recipe available for Pickled Carrots.
Food Preparation, Food Preservation, Food Safety
Are you confused by the dates that appear on food labels? If so you are not alone! According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service product dating is not required by Federal regulations with the exception of infant formula. Most companies do put a date or a code on the package but unfortunately there is no universally accepted method used so it can get confusing. Here are some terms that will help you in determining if the food item is still safe.
“Sell by” means that store should sell the product by the date printed, but it can still safely be eaten after that date. Eggs cartons have a sell by date.
“Best if used by” means the consumer should use the product by the date listed for best quality and flavor (not for safety reasons). Most canned goods have a best if used by date.
“Use by” or “expires” means the product should be used by or frozen by the date listed. There will likely be a marked deterioration in product quality and safety after this date. Meats are an example of a food with a use by date.
A packing code is required on all cans. This enables the company to track when and where the food was manufactured. Unfortunately these aren’t meant for the consumer to interpret as “use by” dates.
Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to extreme temperatures (freezing or temperatures above 90°F). Any cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen should be discarded. You will find that high-acid foods (tomatoes, fruits) will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months and low-acid canned foods (meats, vegetables) for 2 to 5 years.
Follow these tips for ensure that the food that you purchase will be at top quality:
- Purchase the product before the date expires.
- If perishable, take the food home immediately after the purchase and refrigerate it promptly.
- Once you freeze a perishable item, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.
- Don’t buy dented cans from the store. The can could be compromised it could be unsafe.
- Follow the recommendations for on the products for safe storage.
Consumer Management, Food Safety
Big storms can cause power outages any time of year. We may have more concern for food safety when this happens during a summer storm as the contents of the refrigerator and freezer are exposed to warmer room temperatures, especially when the air conditioning goes off.
You should always check the condition of food in the refrigerator and freezer as soon as power returns. That allows you to make safe choices when determining which food is still safe to eat.
These items will be safe: juice, pickles, olives, hard cheese (i.e. Cheddar, Colby, or Swiss), butter/margarine, fresh fruit and vegetables, vinegar/oil dressings, jellies/jams, catsup. Discard any of the above if moldy.
The foods of greatest concern are the perishable items. Estimate the amount of time the power has been off and the current temperature in the fridge or freezer.
- Food will keep 4-6 hours in a refrigerator
- A full freezer will keep food frozen for 2 days
- A freezer that’s only half-full will keep food frozen for 1 day
- If the just off a couple hours, most products will be safe.
Remember these tips for refrigerated or frozen foods:
- Food held at 40 F. or less (ice crystals are intact): the food is SAFE, either consume or refreeze
- Food held above 40 F. for 2 hours or less: DO NOT REFREEZE as is, either cook and consume or cook and freeze
- Foods held above 40 F. for over 2 hours: DISCARD.
Do not hesitate to contact us with questions about specific foods. We are always happy to help.
Consumer Management, Food Safety
It is important to use a meat thermometer to know when the meat you are cooking on the grill is done. Research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicates that the color of the meat is not a reliable indicator meat or poultry has reached a temperature high enough to destroy harmful bacteria that may be present. The following chart from the University of Minnesota Extension gives approximate cooking times for grilling. Remember grill temperatures vary, so watch carefully and check with a meat thermometer often. The USDA recommends cooking pork, beef, veal, lamb chops, roasts, and steaks to 145°F and then letting it rest for 3 minutes before carving or eating.
||145°F (Medium rare)
||1 inch cubes
|Rump roast (rolled-indirect heat)
|Sirloin Tip- indirect heat
||3 ½-4 pounds
||Cut into 1 rib pieces
||Half, 2-3 poundsWhole, 4-6 pounds
||10-12 min/side12-15 min/side
|Fully cooked-indirect heat
|Cook before eating-indirect
||Whole, 10-14 poundsHalf, 5-7 pounds
||10-15 min/lb12-18 min/lb
|Chops/shoulder, loin, rib
|Steaks, sirloin or leg
|Ground lamb patties
||4 oz, ½” thick
||¾ “ thick1 ½” thick
||3-4 min/side7-8 min/side
||½ -1 ½ pounds
||1 ½-2 hours total
|Ground Pork Patties
Food Preparation, Food Safety, Nutrition, recipes