Many older people can recall a time of relaxed attitudes towards leaving food outside the refrigerator (a.k.a. “icebox”) or sterilizing surfaces that have touched raw meat.

But as you grow older, your body changes: Certain functions–such as your immune system–tend to weaken, leaving seniors at greater risk of illness from which it takes them a longer time to recover. That’s why food safety is especially important as you age.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne infection and illness in the United States each year. Many of these people are older adults.

One of the changes your body undergoes is a decreased ability to combat bacteria. Your body secretes less stomach acid, which is a natural defense against ingested bacteria. Your immune system also becomes less efficient at ridding your system of bacteria.

Even your sense of taste or smell–sometimes affected by medication or illness–can fail you, perhaps causing you to sip sour milk or dine on spoiled hamburger.

Fortunately, we can take actions to help ward off sickness. Exercise, vitamins and eating right are all proven methods to sustain your health. But safe food handling is equally important to reduce your risk of foodborne illness.

Some homebound seniors must rely on delivered food. Others are newly single and don’t have much in the way of cooking experience. Whether you’re part of one of these groups or a veteran chef, sticking to these food safety guidelines makes good sense and promotes good health.

Safe Food Handling at Home

Chill out: Refrigerate or freeze all perishable foods. Refrigerator temperature should be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less; freezer temperature should be zero degrees F or less. Also, don’t thaw at room temperature. Always thaw food in the refrigerator, in cold water or in a microwave. After thawing food in the microwave, however, you must cook the food immediately.

Wash up: Wash hands with warm soapy water before preparing food. Wash hands, utensils and cutting boards after contact with raw meat and poultry. This helps prevent cross-contamination.

120 minutes: Never leave food at room temperature for more than two hours. For room temperatures over 90 degrees F, discard food after one hour. This includes take-out and delivered restaurant meals. Discard food left at room temperature longer than two hours.

Cook it well: Thoroughly cook raw meat, poultry and fish. Have a constant heat source and always set your oven at 325 degrees F or higher when cooking meats.

Eating Safe With Take-Out Meals

It’s always nice to grab a sandwich, a bucket of chicken or a meal from your favorite restaurant and take a break from cooking. Just make sure (if it’s a hot meal) it’s hot when you get it and eat it within two hours.

Keeping it warm–whether under a restaurant heating lamp or in your oven at a low temperature–isn’t good enough, as harmful bacteria can multiply between 40 degrees and 140 degrees F.

If you have to wait to eat, set your oven temperature high enough to keep the food hot at 140 degrees F. Check the internal temperature of food with a meat thermometer. You can keep your meal from drying out by covering it with foil.

It’s not a good idea to try and keep the food hot longer than two hours. Food tastes better and stores safely when you do the following:

    • Place it in shallow containers.

    • Divide large quantities into smaller portions.

    • Cover loosely and refrigerate immediately.

    • Reheat thoroughly when ready to eat.

When it comes to leftovers, make sure you thoroughly reheat to 165 degrees F or until hot and steaming. If you’re using a microwave oven, cover the food and rotate so it heats evenly. Let it sit for a bit after to allow for more even heating.

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