Monday, May 9, 2011

Home cookin', leftovers, and your health

CC image: Kathleen Franklin

Home cooking is where it’s at. In my view, getting people to cook at home with wholesome foods is one way to combat the obesity epidemic.  And of course, home cooked meals *can* taste great; that’s chef-dependent of course. Foods prepared outside of the home are higher in calories, fat, and sodium, and a recent meta-analysis found that children and adolescents who eat shared family meals at least 3 times per week are less likely to be overweight or eat unhealthy foods than children who eat fewer shared meals. There are two main problems with home cooking, aside from the multitude of barriers to actually being able to cook (e.g. time/work schedule, knowledge and skills). Rather, these are outcomes of cooking that I will discuss based on a recent experience.

First, we waste a whole lot o’ food. Research in the UK has shown that 2.2 million tonnes of food is thrown away due to cooking, preparing, or serving too much. That’s just food that we’ve managed to work with – it doesn’t include fresh produce, meats/fish, dairy, etc. In the US, 30% of all food is thrown away each year.

All of this waste is obviously costly, as we’re paying for food that we don’t eat. In the case of the US, this amounts to US$48.3 billion! But food waste is also harmful to the environment. Rotting food releases methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. A UK research group estimates that if food were not left to rot in landfills, this would be the greenhouse gas equivalent of removing 1 in 5 cars from the road.  And we can’t forget all of the fertilizers, pesticides, and energy going into growing/raising food that we just toss into the trash.

Okay, home cooking is great but waste is bad. What do we do? Eating your leftovers is one way to get the best of both worlds. Hang on though, leftovers need to be handled and stored properly in order to avoid illness. I have a dietetics bachelor’s degree but am the worst for food safety (probably because more often than not I don’t get sick). I’m the one that leaves the ham sandwich in the car in 30 degree weather (that’s Celsius) all day and then eats it unperturbed on the way home from work.  Or leaves a defrosting tenderloin on the top shelf in the fridge or even out on the counter for the entire day (both no-no’s).

 But the other day, I did get sick – not badly mind but enough to make me realize that food safety does matter if I want to avoid having to take a day off of work. My significant other thought he was doing a service (which he was) by bringing home leftovers from a conference at work. It was some sort of pasta with a béchamel sauce and chicken.  We reheated it in the microwave at home and ate about half of what was brought home. The next day, we both could not stray too far from the toilet…This was no coincidence – same symptoms and the pasta was the only thing we had in common for the previous 24 hours. We threw the rest of it out.

So what went wrong? I can’t say for sure because there are so many things that could have happened, but I’ll touch on a few here. It’s hard for bacteria to grow in foods that are held at temperatures less than 4°C (40°F) or more than 60°C (140°F) – in between is called the ‘danger zone’. When serving prepared hot foods, like this pasta dish, it is imperative that the food be above 60°C. Additionally, time is a factor. Food left out for more than 2 hours is more prone to bacterial contamination. Perhaps the pasta was held in this danger zone – something that caterers should know to avoid, or not thrown out after 2 hours.  My partner may have also taken the pasta and unknowingly left it out for too long. Reheating the pasta at home didn’t seem to do anything. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)  recommends reheating leftovers to 75°C – maybe we didn’t hit that mark.   
When other people make your food there is always the possibility that they didn’t adequately wash their hands, or use clean serving utensils or pots/containers. That’s something out of your control but you can ensure that you do these things when you make your own food.  

Other ways to deal with leftovers to prevent illness: 
  • Put hot leftovers in shallow containers and place immediately in the fridge. Really hot items can be left out for a bit then put in the fridge after the steam stops. Leave lids off or wrap loosely until food becomes fridge temperature (to avoid explosions)
  • A great way to keep leftovers is to freeze them
  • Eat leftovers left in the fridge (as opposed to the freezer) within 2 to 3 days
  • Throw out uneaten leftovers - i.e. once reheated, don’t keep the left over leftovers
  • Thaw frozen leftovers in the fridge or microwave. This is something I need to think about doing – I always thaw my soup at room temperature
  • Never refreeze thawed leftovers – they should be eaten or thrown out  
  • When reheating leftovers, stop the microwave half-way through and stir the dish in order to ensure even heat distribution (we didn’t do this with the pasta dish)
  • The CFIA recommends using a digital thermometer to check food temperatures but I don’t really see this as something that I would do let alone the general public. Maybe… if I get sick again….
  • And finally, when in doubt, throw it out!

The more we cook at home, the better for our health. But sometimes we cook too much. Instead of throwing out food, which is bad for the environment and our pocketbooks, think ‘leftovers for lunch’ and perhaps even for a second dinner. But be mindful of how you handle, store, defrost, thaw, and reheat leftovers. 

Other great resources include:

United States Department of Agriculture: Food Safety and Inspection Service

Love Food Hate Waste: tips for reducing household food waste
Hammons AJ, & Fiese BH (2011). Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents? Pediatrics PMID: 21536618

Quested T, & Johnson H (2009). Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK WRAP

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