Fire up the grill for a healthy and safe cookout

Last weekend, millions of Americans will be fired up the grill for July 4 celebrations. Be sure to plan ahead and follow these steps to ensure a healthy and safe meal when cooking out with your friends and family.

Image by rawpixel.com
  • Clean the Grill: An important step in preparing the grill is cleaning it. Many people use the same brush year after year. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report an increase in reports of people swallowing bristles from these grill brushes. To prevent this, replace grill brushes regularly before the bristles wear down or use a brush for cleaning that does not have steel bristles. Also, wipe down the grill with a wet cloth after scrubbing to remove small pieces of bristle on the grill racks that are difficult to see.
  • Select your meat: One of the advantages of grilling is the flavor it adds without extra fat.  Here are some suggestions for healthy meat choices. For hamburgers, try lean ground beef, turkey, chicken or veggie burgers made from chickpeas or black beans.  Another option is chicken, shrimp or fish.  You can make skewers with meat and vegetables or put them together in a “foil packet” to cook on the grill.
  • Marinate: If you want to marinate the food for extra flavor before cooking, be sure to marinate in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Since the marinade has been exposed to bacteria from the raw food, you need to boil the leftover marinade to kill any harmful bacteria before serving it over the cooked meat. A better idea is to keep some marinade aside in a separate container in the refrigerator that you can serve with the meal. 
  • Storage: Raw foods, including meats and vegetables, need to be stored safely in the refrigerator or a cooler until it is time to grill and serve the food. If you buy the meat, poultry or fish more than 2 days before your barbeque, freeze it to prevent it from spoiling. Be sure to thaw it completely, in either the refrigerator or microwave, before grilling it to ensure even cooking.  
  • Use food thermometer to make sure meat is cooked:  Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often browns very fast.  Watch the temperature to avoid burnt food on the outside and undercooked food on the inside.  Do not rely on its color to determine if it is done.  The only way to determine if a food is cooked to a safe temperature is with a food thermometer.  Ground meats need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F.  Cook all poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F.  When reheating fully cooked meats like hot dogs, grill to 165 °F or until steaming hot. After cooking meat and poultry to a safe temperature, keep it at 140 °F or warmer by placing to the side of the grill rack or in a pre-heated 200 °F oven until ready to serve. 
  • Avoid cross-contamination: When taking food off the grill, use a clean platter instead of the one used for the raw meat.  Bacteria present from the raw meat juices could contaminate the cooked food.  

Plan your menu today for a healthy and safe summer and fire up the grill.  If you have any questions about grilling meat and poultry, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6843 or visit www.fsis.usda.gov .

Love For Leftovers

As many of us plan on what to eat this holiday season, it can be good to have the end in mind — leftovers!

Eating leftovers is an economical choice that reduces food waste and keeps the holiday memory alive for a few more days. However, there are a few tips to share to make sure your leftovers are safe for all to enjoy.

How long can I keep leftovers in the refrigerator and freezer?

You have the option to refrigerate leftovers or freeze them. If you keep your leftovers in the refrigerator, you want to consume them within 3 to 4 days. If you choose to freeze your leftovers, for quality we recommend keeping them in the freezer for 3 to 4 months. Again, you can keep leftovers in the freezer longer, but the quality may decrease — think freezer burn.

Temperatures to remember:

  • Refrigerator: Keep at 32°F to 40°F, buy an appliance thermometer.
    • Why: Temperatures at this range will prevent the growth of most foodborne pathogens.
  • Freezer: Keep at -20°F to 0°F, buy an appliance thermometer.
    • Why: Temperatures at 0°F will prevent bacteria growth. However, freezing doesn’t kill all bacteria. 
  • Reheating leftovers: Reheat leftovers to 165°F, buy an appliance thermometer
    • Why: This temperature will prevent growth of most foodborne pathogens

How do I store leftovers? Cool the foods quickly!

Have food storage containers in mind. Use shallow containers that are 4” or less in height to store leftovers. Shallow containers will help cool foods to 40°F and below faster.

Why: Temperatures at 40°F and below will reduce the risk of bacteria growing quickly (one bacteria can grow to over 16 million bacteria in 8 hours under the right conditions).

How: Slice large cuts into smaller portions to be refrigerated or frozen. Hot foods can be placed directly into the refrigerator or placed in an ice or cold water bath before refrigerating.

Gifts are not the only thing that should be wrapped well!

Wrapping leftovers so they are airtight will help keep moisture, absorbing funky odors and help keep bacteria out.

Though this infographic shows how to thaw a frozen turkey, the same methods can be used for other frozen foods.

Thawing: Thaw frozen leftovers in the microwave, refrigerator, cold water method or cook frozen. The best method is thawing in the refrigerator because the food can always be refrozen if using a refrigerator thaw.

Why: These methods do not encourage bacteria growth.

Reheating leftovers: Whether you use the oven, stovetop or microwave, you will want to reheat leftovers until they reach a safe internal temperature of 165°F. If you use the microwave, cover the bowl or plate, and make sure you stir the food to prevent cold spots, where food many not heat up.

Helpful resources:

  1. Your local Extension office: Find here
  2. Free FoodKeeper App: Here
  3. USDA: Leftovers and food safety

This post written by Extension food safety specialist Shauna Henley, PhD.

Hot off the Grill: Healthy Grillin’ ideas!

Some of my fondest summer memories include weekend barbeques at the Jersey shore. Eating outdoors and the smell of food cooking on our grill still makes my mouth water. Grilling isn’t only a summer activity. In fact, during the recent pandemic many people, myself included, found grilling to be a great alternative to using a stove or oven. Seeing grill marks on foods and eating outdoors just makes things taste better. 

Grilling is easy and can be a healthy cooking method, especially if you use lean cuts of meat, skinless chicken, or fish. Marinating foods in juices, vinegars, and wine along with your favorite herbs and spices adds a calorie-free flavor punch. If you prefer bottled marinades, choose one that contains a small amount of oil (preferably olive or canola).  

Grilling can also have a downside regarding our health. When high-fat meats are cooked at high temperatures, two cancer-causing compounds are formed — heterocyclic amines (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAH). When I first read the science behind this I thought, does this mean no more burgers on the grill? The answer is no. The good news is there are things you can do to reduce the health risk from these compounds.  

1. Choose lean meats, cut them in small pieces, and grill them at a lower temperature longer. For example, instead of a one big burger or chicken breast, I grill burger sliders and chicken kabobs with fruits and vegetables. Plant foods add color and nutrients and don’t form HCAs and PAHs.

2. Marinating meats and poultry 1-2 hours before grilling can reduce these cancer-causing compounds, especially if marinades contain olive-oil and herbs and spices high in antioxidants (oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, cinnamon). My favorite marinade for poultry and vegetables is a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, rosemary, and one-two drops of lemon juice.

3. Trimming excess fat will limit the fat drippings and PAHs.

4. Flipping meats often prevents them from charring, limiting HCAs from forming.

Recently I discovered many foods you can grill besides meat, poultry, and fish. My new favorites include grilled Cesar salad and an array of fresh vegetables and fruits. Grilled watermelon wedges and pineapple slices (great on chicken or a burger) are delicious and nutrient-rich, and grilled peach halves with shortbread crumbles and strawberries with grilled pound cake drizzled with balsamic glaze are my two new favorite summer desserts. 

Summer is quickly approaching. If you haven’t already, it’s time to get out the grill, clean and fire it up, and have fun with friends and family over a great meal! For hot tips for grilling safely, visit the Partnership for Food Safety Education:  https://www.fightbac.org/?s=grilling+tips&id=12049.

Try this great grilling recipe!

Grilled peaches with shortbread cookie crumbles

  • 4 peaches, preferable Freestone
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/3 cup shortbread cookies, finely crumbled
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, cut into small pieces
  • Low-fat frozen vanilla yogurt
  • Amaretto liqueur (optional)
  1. Heat a gas grill to medium.
  2. Cut peaches in half, all the way around. Twist halves off their pits. Remove pits. Brush the cut sides of the peaches lightly with olive oil. Grill, cut side down until grill marks form and flesh softens, about 4 to 5 minutes.
  3. Combine crumbled shortbread cookies with brown sugar and melted butter or margarine. Scoop small amount of mixture into the pit hole of each peach half.
  4. Put peach halves in an aluminum foil pan and move to the side of the grill to continue cooking over indirect heat, another 4 to 5 minutes.
  5. Serve with small scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt. Optional: Drizzle with amaretto liqueur.

Tips for a Safe and Healthy July Fourth Celebration

Americans celebrate July 4th with picnics, barbecues and fireworks. Whether it is in your own backyard or at local parks and recreation centers, here are some important tips for healthy eating and food safety to keep in mind.  

Stay hydrated. As the temperatures increase this summer and we spend more time outside, remember to stay hydrated. Water is the best choice to drink. You can make infused water by adding oranges, lemons, limes, berries or cucumbers for a different flavor. Add a patriotic theme by adding diced blueberries and strawberries to ice cube trays, fill with water and freeze. Add these to your water or try some sparkling water for a little fizz.

Plan ahead. This is key to food safety for your celebration. Food borne illnesses increase during the hot summer months when people are eating outside more often. Some essential items to pack for your celebration are:

  • food thermometer (if you are grilling)
  • two coolers with ice
  • plenty of clean utensils
  • storage containers for leftovers
  • paper towels
  • soap and water for handwashing
  • trash bags

Prepare food the day before. To save you time, cut up fruits and vegetables and prepare foods like salads, deviled eggs and desserts the day or two before and refrigerate so they are thoroughly chilled when putting in the cooler. If your meats (burgers, hot dogs, steaks or chicken) are frozen, be sure to thaw them in the refrigerator the night before and not on the countertop.

Pack two coolers. Pre-chill your coolers early in the morning by placing ice in them a few hours before packing so they are already chilled. Place raw meats in tightly sealed containers and place them in the bottom of the cooler so juices from these foods do not drip onto other foods. Pack other perishables, like deviled eggs, salads and vegetables directly from the refrigerator right before leaving the house. Make sure to fill coolers with ice around the food to keep it cold. Add extra ice or freezer gel packs on top to keep food at 40°F or colder. A full cooler will keep cold temperatures better than a half-filled cooler. Pack a separate cooler with beverages so they are easily accessible throughout the day and limits the frequency of opening the food cooler.

Keep coolers cool. When traveling, place coolers up front in the air conditioning because temperatures can reach over 140°F in the trunk. Once you arrive at your site, keep coolers in the shade and place a blanket over them. Keep them closed as much as possible to keep the contents inside cold. It is important to keep food out of the “Danger Zone”, between 40 and 140 degrees F, to prevent rapid growth of bacteria, which can cause food borne illnesses. 

Tips for grilling. If grilling, be sure to cook meat and poultry to a safe temperature, measured with a food thermometer. To kill bacteria, cook steaks to 145 degrees F, hamburgers and ribs to 160 degrees F, and all poultry and hot dogs to 165 degrees F. Use a clean plate to serve food from the grill.   

Store safely. After serving, store foods back in the cooler. Do not allow food to sit out longer than one hour when it is warm outside. If in doubt, throw it out. Some foods such as breads, rolls, chips, crackers, and cookies are okay to leave out but cover to keep them fresh.

Keep your family safe and healthy this Fourth of July by following a few guidelines and taking precautions with your food, and be sure your summertime picnic is full of fun.

Kids can make their own food sparklers!

This requires a make-ahead step of slicing watermelon and then cutting out star shapes with a cookie cutter. Place watermelon stars in a covered container to use when making the sparklers. Fill separate containers with blueberries and strawberries. Set up a station so kids can create their own sparklers. Start with a wooden skewer. Next add blueberries and strawberries to the skewer but leave space at the top for the watermelon star. A fun, creative way to enjoy a healthy patriotic treat.

The whole family can enjoy brainstorming and creating other patriotic-themed foods to celebrate our nation’s birthday.

The New Reality of Grocery Shopping

Remember when grocery shopping was a boring chore and you couldn’t wait to leave the store? Actually, I enjoy strolling the aisles, searching for sales and new products, but grocery store shopping has changed. People still can’t wait to leave the stores, but for different reasons. Due to new government policies we are required to wear masks and there are limits to the amount of people in the store at a given time. Many feel anxious and wonder if it’s safe to shop or if they could potentially contract the virus from food they buy.  

Woman hoarding food during coronavirus pandemicAccording to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is currently no evidence that coronavirus can be transferred through food. Read more about how the virus is transmitted at the CDC

Grocery stores are also taking safety precautions. Many provide hand sanitizers at the door (I recommend using them when you enter and leave the store), disinfect their carts and other frequently touched surfaces, limit the number of people in the store at one time and mark floors to encourage social distancing. 

In-Store Shopping

The biggest risk in grocery stores is coming into close contact with another person who’s sick. Following these tips to reduce your risk. 

  • Wear a mask. Covering your nose and mouth decreases the risk of getting the virus. Don’t have one? Use a scarf or check out the Good Housekeeping video to learn how to make one using a bandana and coffee filter. 
  • Avoid crowds. Shopping weekdays in the late afternoons and evenings seem to be less crowded than weekends. Many stores are opening their doors early for elderly people only, so check store hours before heading out.
  • Social Distance. Stay at least 6 feet from other people at all times. Don’t be afraid to ask others to step back if they are too close to you in line.
  • Make a list before you go. This minimizes time spent in the store.

image-from-rawpixel-id-2327676-jpegOnline Shopping

Demand for online grocery deliveries is high and could take a week or more to get your delivery. Here are some tips that can help you get groceries delivered at your doorstep. 

  • Explore store options. Big companies like Amazon and Walmart offer grocery delivery, however check if smaller grocers or corners stores in your area also deliver. Wait time may be less.
  • Try the Instacart App. This app lets you shop from local grocery stores online, then sends a “personal shopper” to shop and deliver your order.
  • Can’t get a delivery slot? Load up your cart and keep refreshing your browser until one becomes available. Also try shopping at midnight when more time slots for delivery open up.
  • Delivery Services. Check if Nextdoor, a local social networking service is available in your neighborhood. Many people shop for their neighbors who can’t easily get to the store. Local Rotary Clubs may also offer free food and delivery for populations who have difficulty getting out. 
  • Contactless delivery. Regardless of who delivers, you can eliminate contact with one more person by asking them to leave the groceries outside your door. 

Panic-buying toilet paper during coronavirus epidemicA final lighthearted thought. People have been stockpiling the elusive toilet paper since this health crisis began. But how much do we really need? Use this Toilet Paper Calculator to determine your average daily usage. You may discover you need less than you thought.

Be well!

Meals On-The-Go

Special guest post from UMD senior River Philbert, Class of 2020

Commuting to a college campus daily is one of the many ways college students can save money. Students are not only able to save on room and board, but also save money by not purchasing a meal plan or spending money at on-campus dining.

As a commuter student, I faced the challenge of staying on campus all day without an actual meal. Unlike other college students, I wasn’t able to run to the dining hall or my apartment between classes to eat a meal. It’s very easy to spend money on meals, but I knew that I was unable to afford buying a meal every day, so I needed to get creative. Over the past two years, I was able to master bringing my lunch to campus and have enjoyed it ever since.

Meals On-The-Go
Bringing your own lunch doesn’t only save costs but it can help create a better eating lifestyle. Making your lunch can increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat daily and decrease the amount of sodium, and sugar you find at fast food restaurants.

Cost savings 

Buying lunch or meals from fast food restaurants daily can become very costly. For example, a meal might cost anywhere between  $7 to $10, which can equal almost $50 a week or $200 a month.

Packing meals can help cut down those costs significantly. For example, you buy one sandwich for about $7 at Subway. You can get the same ingredients for about $15 and make the sandwich at home. The ingredients can last for about a week, which in total can save you $20 compared to buying a sub from Subway every day.

Food safety

Commuter students may also face the additional issue of lacking refrigeration for their lunch, or access to a microwave for on-the-go meals. Many students are unaware that the buildings with multiple food establishments tend to have microwaves, including the Union Shop at STAMP Student Union. The UMD campus map shows a listing of public access microwaves on campus.

(Meal tip: when reheating food is always keep your dish covered with a microwave-safe lid.)

Keeping food cold is essential so bacteria doesn’t spread. It’s best to prepare and refrigerate meals the night before and not take them out until you’re ready to leave. To keep foods cold throughout the day, get a frozen gel pack that you freeze overnight and put on top of your food to keep it cold throughout the day. Not all foods need to be kept cold such as whole fruits, nuts, vegetables, chips, etc.

Healthy on-the-go options 

Hummus Wrap: spinach tortilla, spicy roasted hummus, cucumbers, and spinach.
Salad in a Jar:  choice of veggies, nuts, and dressing.
Snacks: Crackers, apples, almonds, and raisins

There are lots of delicious lunch options available online to try. Packing a lunch to bring to campus has helped me stay healthy and saves money. I have experimented with a variety of meals and snacks and have learned what works best for me. Don’t be afraid to try something new, like bringing your lunch; you won’t regret it.

River Philbert is a senior Communications major, with a minor in General Business, at the University of Maryland.

Water Bath Canning

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Preserving foods at home, especially canning, is becoming more popular and there are a number of recipes, blogs, and canning guidelines available on internet. As exciting as it is, some of these sources are not research-based and give unsafe food handling advice.

We here at Breathing Room want to make sure your homemade products are safe, healthy and delicious. Considering the food safety issues associated with home preserved foods, I will be providing instruction and advice on canning methods in this, and upcoming, blogs.

Let’s start with canning fruits and pickles. Most beginners tend to start canning fruits, jams, jellies, and pickles over other food items because it utilizes water bath canning – a method recommended for canning high acid foods – as opposed to pressure canning.

What Equipment Do I Need?

Water bath canner – a large aluminum or porcelain pot with a lid. It also comes with a wire rack that fits inside to hold canning jars.

Mason jars with two lids – a metal lid with sealing compound, and a metal screwband. They come in different sizes such as half-pint, pint, etc., or with a wide mouth (for pickles or whole fruits).

Canning toolkit – contains a lid magnet (for lifting metal lids), a funnel, tongs, a bubble wand (for removing air bubbles and measuring headspace), and jar lifter (to lift and handle hot jars).

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What Products Will I Need?

Most jam and jelly recipes will include the following general items:

Produce: Use almost-ripe fruits for products with better taste and texture. Support local agriculture by using produce grown at home, from local farm stands, or by participating in Community Supported Agriculture.

Pectin/Gelatin: Pectin helps to form gel by holding moisture present, and is sold as a powder and a liquid. IMPORTANT: Use the form indicated in the recipe, do not substitute.

Acid: Acid content in fruit varies. Some jellied products may not need added acid, whereas others may use lemon juice (commercial juice with 5% acidity) or citric acid.

Sugar: Sugar enhances taste, acts as a preservative, and works with pectin and acid to stabilize the gel. To limit sugar, use a tested and reliable recipe that uses modified pectin. You can also use recipes with artificial sweeteners however, it will not provide preservative properties and can alter the taste of the product. Note: do not swap sweeteners in recipes calling for sugar.

General Steps for Canning Jams and Jellies

  • Sterilize your jars:
    • Wash glass jars and metal screwbands in hot soapy water (if reusing jars). Sterilize in boiling water for 10 minutes. This step can be skipped if the processing time for canning is longer than 10 minutes.
    • Sterilize new metal lids with sealing compound in simmering water. NOTE – These should NOT be reused.
  • Recipe preparation:
    • Thoroughly wash produce. Trim, cut, and prep your fruit as indicated in the recipe. Cut pieces as evenly as possible.
    • Follow tested recipe guidelines without altering the ingredient amount.
  • Processing:
    • Use a funnel to pour the prepared recipe in the sterilized jars.
    • Remove air bubbles using the bubble wand and measure and/or adjust the headspace as indicated in the recipe.
    • Wipe the jar rim with clean towel without touching the food.
    • Use the lid magnet to lift metal lid and place it on the jar. Place metal screwband and finger-tip tighten the lid.
    • Place prepared jars in the canner and cover with the lid. Wait for the water to come to a rolling boil.
    • Start timer for the processing.
    • Turn off the burner and let it rest for 10 minutes.
    • Remove the jars with the jar lifter, and remove the lids. Rest the jars on the counter for at least 12 hours.
    • Clean the jars and label with recipe name, production and expiration date. 

What are Tested/Reliable Recipes?

These recipes are lab-tested for time, temperature, and pH to ensure safety of the product if followed diligently. These recipes can be found on USDA’s website, state extension websites, So Easy to Preserve Book, and the Ball Book on Preserving. You can also participate in the University of Maryland Extension’s statewide Food preservation program to gain hands-on experience.

Have fun canning!

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Summer Fun Begins With A Well-Packed Cooler

Family outing
Coolers help to keep your food and drinks cold, but can also keep your family safe from foodborne illnesses.

Are you heading to the beach or planning a picnic in the park? If so, you are probably using a cooler to tote along food and beverages for your outing. Coolers help to keep your food and drinks cold, but did you know a cooler also keeps your family safe from foodborne illnesses? The number of people that get sick from foodborne illnesses increases during the summer because of the many outdoor activities involving food.

Follow these tips on packing a cooler and keeping food chilled so you can enjoy your summer fun without the worry of foodborne illnesses.

It starts with the cooler.

  • If your cooler has been sitting in a garage or basement over the winter, bring it into the house a day or two before your outing.
  • Clean the inside with hot, soapy water, rinse and spray it with an equal mix of water and vinegar.
  • Leave the lid open so the inside can dry completely.
  • Pre-chill the cooler by filling it with ice or ice packs a couple of hours before you are ready to pack it. This helps to ensure that your food stays colder longer.

Packing your cooler correctly.

  • Ice blocks are best for keeping food cold. You can purchase ice packs or make your own by filling containers like plastic bottles with water and freezing.
  • Place ice in the bottom of cooler and pack perishable foods on top. Place items in the cooler in the reverse order that you will use them. Pack foods directly from the refrigerator.
  • You can even freeze some foods, like juice boxes, milk and meats so they thaw in the cooler.
  • Fill in the gaps with reusable flexible ice sheets or small water bottles.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before packing so they are ready to eat when you arrive at your destination.
  • Keep meat and poultry separate from fruits, vegetables and salads that you serve raw. You may consider a smaller, separate cooler for your meats. Pack all meats in airtight bags or leak-proof plastic containers to prevent cross contamination and messy coolers.
  • Remember foods like lunch meat, cooked chicken, potato and pasta salad need to stay cold in a cooler.
  • Since people will be having drinks all day long, it may be better to pack a separate cooler for drinks. Pre-chilling or partially freezing drinks keeps them cold even longer. Place drinks in cooler first and then place ice packs on top.

Safety tips for protecting your family and friends.

  • Don’t forget a thermometer. One of the best ways to keep your food safe is to make sure the temperature inside the cooler is below 40°F. Instead of guessing, tuck an appliance thermometer inside the cooler for a foolproof reading.
  • Cold escapes every time you open the cooler so keep these times to a minimum.
  • If grilling is in your plans, pack a food thermometer to be sure you cook food to the proper temperatures. If you are not sure what temperature, check out foodsafety.gov for guidance.
  • If possible, keep the cooler in the front of the car when traveling where it is air-conditioned instead of the hot trunk.
  • Find a shaded area to keep your cooler and cover it with a heavy beach towel or blanket to protect it from the heat.
  • Be sure to use a cooler that is the right size for your needs. A full cooler stays colder longer than one that is half-full.

Food safety is important all year long but foodborne illnesses increase during summer months due to poor handling. Enjoy your summer fun by using a properly packed cooler to keep food safe for your family. For more information on food handling tips in the outdoors, check out the Food & Drug Administration’s safe handling tips.