The kitchen is the most dangerous room in the house, so kitchen safety is important.
For clarity's sake, I'm dividing kitchen safety into 3 main categories: setup, basic practices, and food safety.
Setup involves foundational principles that everyone should follow for a safe kitchen. Basic practices is about how to be careful in a kitchen: things to do and never do in the interest of kitchen safety. Food safety is about minimizing food-borne illness by following proper food handling practices.
Do you practice kitchen safety? Here are some easy tips to make your kitchen as safe as possible.
General Kitchen Safety: Setup
1. Invest in Good Lighting.
Good lighting is one of the best safeguards against accidents, in the kitchen and everywhere else. If you can't see what you're doing, how can you be safe?
According to most kitchen design professionals, good kitchen lighting requires 3 levels: 1) General/ambient; 2) Task; 3) Decorative.
General/Ambient Lighting. This is your overhead lighting. This lights the entire room. It should be bright but not glaring. Being dimmable is also a bonus, as you may not always want full brightness when you're trying to create a certain ambiance. Recessed lighting is considered the best type of general lighting, but if you have a small kitchen, a good overhead light fixture works well, too.
Task Lighting. This lighting is focused on your work areas. Typically task lighting is installed under upper cupboards to provide bright, focused lighting right where you need it the most. The light in your range hood over your cooktop is also task lighting.
Decorative Lighting. These are pendants, dining room chandeliers, or other decorative lights primarily for design and to create ambiance.
Good general and task lighting will greatly increase kitchen safety, and should be considered a priority when designing your kitchen.
You may not be able to change your overhead lighting without a major makeover, but installing good, under-cabinet task lighting is surprisingly easy. A huge variety of designs and installation options are available. Here is Amazon's selection of task lighting.
2. Keep a Fire Extinguisher On Hand (and Know Other Fire Safety in the Kitchen)
Even though you may never have to use it, the fire extinguisher is the most important appliance in your kitchen.
The kitchen is the number one place for fires to start in the home, with over 150,000 fires each year. Causes for these fires varies from grease to faulty wiring to appliance issues (especially microwaves).
So you should keep a fire extinguisher near your stove. (Check out Amazon's favorite fire extinguisher, for around $40.) Of course, you need to know how to use it, too--as well as under what conditions it's necessary. It's not difficult, but if you don't know these things, get some training. Most local fire stations are happy to provide all the information you need.
Fire extinguishers have expiration dates (or more accurately, inspection dates that expire), too, so make sure yours is up-to-date.
Additionally, you should take other precautions whenever you cook, such as:
- Keep a pan lid or cookie sheet handy to smother small stove top fires. This is the first line of defense and usually does the job.
- Also keep baking soda nearby, which will also smother a grease fire effectively.
- Do not use water to put out a grease fire. It will spread the flames.
- Don't wear loose clothing or dangly jewelry--especially loose sleeves that can easily drag through food and cooking heat. It's not only dangerous, it's unsanitary (despite what you might see chefs wearing on Food Network shows).
- Be very careful when using deep fat fryers (e.g., don't let cords dangle over the counters or let children use them).
- Test your smoke detector bi-annually or quarterly.
- If your microwave starts on fire, simply unplug it.
- If you have any fire ever, call 911 immediately.
3. Keep the Microwave Within Easy Reach
Oftentimes, the microwave is installed as an afterthought, either below cupboards so you have to bend over to use it, or too high, so you have to reach too far up to get food in and out of it.
Install it too low, and you may be straining your back every time you use it. Install it too high, and you can't see what's going on in it or react quickly to spills and other emergencies.
I know you don't want the microwave sitting on the counter taking up precious space. But try to find a happy medium so it's safe to use. Too low is better than too high, but ideally you can have it in a spot you can reach easily and see into clearly.
Speaking of the microwave: Did you know microwaves are responsible for more scalding injuries than any other kitchen appliance? You don't think food containers are going to be hot after nuking, but often they are. So always be careful when removing food from your microwave: use oven mitts, place the container on a microwave-safe plate and grab the plate, or let food cool for a few minutes before attempting to grab it. Watch for steam, too--the primary cause of scalding in the kitchen.
4. Consider Installing Pull-out Shelves in Cupboards
Pull-out shelving may not seem like a kitchen safety concern, but it certainly can be. Bending over and kneeling down are both hard on the back and cause fatigue and muscle strain.
Not only that, but if you can't easily reach to the back of your cupboards, you are less likely to make full use of them.
I lived in a rental house once that had pull-out shelving, and it was the first thing we installed in our kitchen when we moved into our new house. It not only decreases strain from kneeling and reaching, it makes your cupboard space a delight to use.
I like the Rev-a-Shelf products. (See them on Amazon and at Home Depot.) They come in tons of sizes and besides shelves include trash bins, spice racks, lazy susans for large corner cupboards, and more. The products aren't cheap, but they're sturdy and take a screwdriver and about 15 minutes to install.
Once you have pull-out shelves, you won't want to live without them!
5. Slip-Resistant Flooring
Falls are the number one cause of accidental death and the number one cause of trauma-related injuries in the US. Since the kitchen is full of potentially slippery substances, from water to cooking grease, a majority of home falls happen there. Therefore, slip-resistant flooring is a must.
If you're lucky enough to be designing a kitchen from the ground up, give some thought to slip-resistant flooring. Good choices include wood with a flat finish, laminate, and textured vinyl.
However, even if you have safe, slip-resistant flooring, you might also want to consider buying some carpet pads or anti-fatigue pads. Standing for long periods on any hard surface strains your feet, back, shoulders, and neck. If you spend a lot of time in your kitchen, anti-fatigue mats are a must.
Here is Amazon's selection of anti-fatigue mats, as well as carpet pads--if you go with the thicker ones, you can put them under your decorative rugs and have the same support as the not-as-pretty mats. Either option will provide excellent support for your feet and back.
Also, if you opt for rugs, you should always use mats under them, not just for safety, but also because it increases the life of the rug.
6. Use a Sturdy Step Stool to Reach High Places
One of the most common ways to fall is trying to reach a spot that you really need a step stool for.
So keep a step stool in your kitchen or nearby for easy reach. You not only will be safer, you'll be more likely to make use of all your cupboard space--even the really high cupboards.
I have one like in this image, and I keep it folded up between the fridge and the wall in the pantry. It's the perfect spot for it.
And please, please don't use a chair. Chairs are not designed to be stood on, and they aren't stable.
Here's one of Amazon's favorite step stools, which you can have for less than $30.
7. Keep a First Aid Kit in the Kitchen or Nearby
Kitchen safety requires that you keep a well-stocked first aid kit in or near the kitchen. Make sure you have bandages for cuts and burn ointment. Acquaint yourself with the kit so you know what you've got to work with before an emergency happens.
Here are first aid kits on Amazon for your perusal.
General Kitchen Safety: Practices
When you're cooking, you should always have some sort of kitchen safety game plan. You might already do some of the things listed here, but maybe you don't do all of them. All are good practices to keep danger and accidents to a minimum.
And of course, this list isn't exhaustive. Kitchen safety practices number in the hundreds, and will vary depending on your specific conditions. Use these as guidelines to help you think about safety and how to practice it in your own kitchen.
Also, for more advice on keeping your kitchen clean and germ free, see How To: 3 Super Easy Tips for a Clean Kitchen.
1. Keep Knives Sharp, But Handle with Care!
It drives me nuts when somebody says that "sharp knives are safe knives." This is true, but only to a point!
Yes: sharp knives are safer to use because they require less pressure to cut through food, thereby minimizing the potential for slipping and injuries to occur. However, sharp knives are, very literally, deadly objects. If you had to choose which you'd rather have your 5 year old handle, which would it be: a sharp knife or a dull knife?
See my point?
So keep your knives sharp, but handle them with extreme respect:
- Do not submerge them in dishwater (you might get distracted and forget they're there).
- Do not allow children to play with them.
- Do not leave them loose in a drawer--invest in a knife rack for safe keeping and also for the well-being of the knives themselves. (I like magnetic ones that fasten to the wall, which are both space-saving and convenient.)
- Learn how to cut properly to minimize the possibility of injuring yourself.
- Do not handle knives with wet or greasy hands.
For more knife information, see Kitchen Tools: 5 to Splurge On, 6 to Save On.
2. Clean Up Spills Immediately
Spilling is part of cooking. Being careful is always good, but from time to time, you're going to spill.
The key isn't not spilling--the key is in how quickly you clean up those spills.
Anything wet, greasy, or sticky on the floor constitutes a slipping hazard. Even if you know it's there and remember to avoid it, other people in the house don't. Anyone who comes into a kitchen with a slippery floor is at risk for a fall. And so are you, if you happen to forget it's there.
So clean those spills up right away. Even if you have to stop what you're doing. Turn the stove off, turn the running water off, and clean that spill.
If it's greasy, be sure to use a de-greaser. Otherwise, the slippery spot will remain even if the mess is gone.
This is not only a good kitchen safety practice; it's also a good cleaning practice because in general, the longer something sits, the harder it is to clean it up.
3. Don't Allow Cords to Dangle Near the Stove or Sink or Where they Could Be Pulled to the Floor
If you've ever pulled a lamp off a table by tripping on the cord, you'll relate to this one.
I remember my dad scolding me from a very young age to not let electrical cords dangle loosely where they could be tripped on or pulled at inadvertently. To this day I practice "cord safety" in all rooms in the house, but it's particularly important in the kitchen and bathroom because of how serious the consequences could be if you're not.
Here are some pointers for dealing with electrical cords:
- Don't let loose cords dangle over the floor. Instead, coil them up and fasten them with a rubber band or zip tie. (Some appliances come with a velcro strip for this purpose.)
- Don't use cords near the sink or stove. Falling into water or a hot burner could both cause electrocution and fire hazards.
- Don't use extension cords with dangerous appliances like deep fryers and mixers.
- Unplug appliances when not in use. This is not only a safe practice, it might also save you a few cents on your electric bill.
4. Don't Allow Horseplay in the Kitchen
If you've got kids and/or pets, set some rules about being in the kitchen. Most accidents happen when you're not paying full attention to a task, so you should keep the distractions to a minimum.
The kitchen may be the hearth of the home and provide a safe haven for all who enter--but it's also full of sharp objects and dangerous appliances.
So be careful.
5. Don't Set Objects Where They Can Easily Fall
One of my pet peeves is when people set objects at the edge of a table or counter when they could just as easily set the object back a ways, where it's much less likely to fall.
Maybe they're distracted, or maybe they've been lucky and never had any repercussions from doing this, but you'd be surprised how many people are careless about this. I see it all the time--and I usually bite my tongue.
So I am hereby officially offering this simple, practical advice: don't set objects where they can fall easily. Not knives, not plates, not ice cube trays, not pots and pans, not cutting boards, not coffee cups, not anything. It's just not worth it.
6. Treat Cookware with the Respect It Deserves
Cookware safety is worthy of a post of its own, but I'll touch on some main points here.
- Don't allow handles to dangle over the floor when cooking. You can catch clothing on them or knock them to the floor. So keep handles turned toward the back of the stove.
- Always use oven mitts to handle hot pots and pans--even those from the microwave.
- Use both hands to lift and carry full pots and pans.
- Respect the steam! Steam accounts for a large percentage of kitchen burns. So always be careful around steaming pots.
- If you have glass cookware, be mindful about abrupt temperature changes. Adding hot liquid to an ice cold pan can shatter it, as can putting a pan directly from the freezer into the oven.
7. Don't Leave Cooking Food Unattended
Sure, if you've got a roast in the oven, you don't have to stare at the oven door for 3 hours.
However, if you've got food on the stovetop or in the microwave, you should stick around. Leaving a hot stove unattended has burnt down more than a few houses. Food can bubble over and cause a grease fire. Or burn and ruin a pan.
In fact, forgetting about food on the stove is the number one cause of cooking fires according to the Home Safety Council. Don't let this happen to you.
One way to not forget about food is to use a timer. Even if you're sure you'll remember, set a timer. Get in the habit. This is especially wise when you've got more than one thing going (because believe me, you'll forget).
Germs, germs, germs: they're everywhere! Keeping your kitchen germ free is a constant battle. But that doesn't mean it has to be hard. Get into a few simple habits, and the germs practically take care of themselves.
Well, no, that's not true. But keeping your kitchen clean is a major part of kitchen safety. If you've ever experienced the joys of food poisoning, you'll understand why.
Here are some basic tips that will help keep your kitchen clean and germ-free. (Mostly germ-free, anyway. There's no such thing as a kitchen without some germs. That's just life.)
1. Wash Your Hands Before, During, and After Handling Food
Washing your hands is the number one defense against germs in all situations, not just in the kitchen.
Think of all the different surfaces you touch every day. Well, all those surfaces have germs on them. Most germs are harmless, but some, not so much. Your hands bring everything you've touched into your home. So, wash, wash, and wash again. Just wash those germs, bacteria, pathogens, and viruses right down the drain. Buh-bye!
This goes double and triple for food. Think of all the people who've handled your food, from the people who picked it to the people who processed it to the grocer who stocked it (and if not wrapped, the cashier who rang it up).
I even wash produce that's been "triple-washed." Because who knows. And produce can be great producers of e. coli. Or is it salmonella? Either way, I wash it.
So wash your produce, but more importantly, wash your hands. Before you cook (to wash away all the exterior germs), while you cook (to wash away all the germs from the food you've handled), and after you cook (to wash away all the side effects of cooking). And of course, wash before you eat (again, to wash away all the exterior germs your hands have touched).
And don't forget to use a little lotion. I keep a bottle under the sink, right next to my dish soap. With all that washing, your hands are going to need it.
Did you know there's an "official" hand washing method put out by the CDC? Here it is, straight from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website:
Follow the five steps below to wash your hands the right way every time.
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
2. Honor the Danger Zone
What is the Danger Zone? From Wikipedia:
The temperature range in which food-borne bacteria can grow is known as the danger zone. Food safety agencies, such as the United States' Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), define the danger zone as roughly 4 to 60 °C (39 to 140 °F). The FSIS stipulates that potentially hazardous food should not be stored at temperatures in this range in order to prevent food-borne illness (for example, a refrigerator's temperature must be kept below 4 °C (40 °F)), and that food that remains in this zone for more than two hours should not be consumed. Food-borne microorganisms grow much faster in the middle of the zone, at temperatures between 21 and 47 °C (70 and 117 °F).
If you want to learn more, go to the Wikipedia page--there are plenty of links to follow.
To sum up, don't allow susceptible food to remain at temps between 39F and 140F for more than 2 hours.
What is "susceptible" food? All meats and fish, eggs out of their shells, dairy products, most produce (bean sprouts, spinach), any mayonnaise-based dishes, leftovers, stock, soup, stews, etc. This includes frozen food that you're thawing--if you must leave it out, only do so for 2 hours, then it must go in the fridge.
Honoring the Danger Zone will go a long way towards kitchen safety and keeping food-borne illnesses at bay.
If 140F is the top of the Danger Zone, then why is it safe to eat rare meat? After all, rare steak is about 120-125F in the center, and rare salmon is even less than that. How can this possibly be safe?
The answer is pretty simple. The vast majority of pathogens are on the surface of meat. So if the surface is heated to above 140F--as it is with a seared piece of rare steak or salmon--MOST of the pathogens are destroyed. This makes the food safe to eat for most people.
Not all people, however. Pregnant women, elderly people, and those with compromised immune systems are advised against eating rare or even medium-rare meat.
And as for hamburger, where the pathogens can be mixed throughout the meat, well, eat a rare burger at your own risk. Much as I love a rare, juicy burger, I always order mine with "no pink." You just don't know where that meat has been.
3. Thaw and Marinate in the Fridge
In accordance with honoring the Danger Zone, thaw and marinate meat (and other foods, too--but especially meat) in the fridge.
Sure, you might plan to leave it out for no longer than the 2 hour span. But things happen. You get distracted, and before you know it, that marinade's been out for awhile and you've forgotten exactly how long.
Err on the side of caution. Put it in the fridge.
4. Don't Wash Meat
Yes, this is contrary to all the afore-mentioned advice to wash, wash, wash. But there's a logical reason for it, so hear me out.
When you wash meat, you splatter meat juices everywhere. All over your sink, faucet, the nearby counters, and whatever happens to be near your sink at the time (e. g., knives, other utensils, vegetables for dinner, dish towels and sponges, etc.).
It's a cross-contamination nightmare.
And since the meat is cooked to an external temp above 140F, most of the pathogens that came with the meat are destroyed.
In fact, most dangerous pathogens are destroyed at somewhere around 135F, and some even below that. So as long as the surface temp reached 140F and stays there for several minutes, you're good.
5. Change Towels Daily
Kitchen towels may appear clean and dry, but if you've used them to cook with the day before, they're loaded with all kinds of germs.
Think about what you do with your kitchen towel. Do you dry your hands on it? Then maybe you wipe your wet-but-unwashed hands on it? Or maybe your greasy hands? Then use it to wipe down the counter? Or wipe up a spill or two (not on the floor, of course, but still)? And then maybe someone else comes in and dries their hands with it (even though you've asked them countless times to please use the bathroom but they're so excited about all the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen that they never remember)?
Change your kitchen towel(s) every day. And if you're reluctant because it still seems clean and usable, use it to wipe down your cupboards and the floor before tossing it in the hamper.
Clean towels, clean cupboards, clean floor: it's a win-win-win.
6. Sanitize Kitchen Sponge in Dishwasher or Microwave Daily and Change Often
After reading so extensively about pathogens, I'm tempted to change my kitchen sponge every day, too. But if you keep it clean, it's not necessary. (Here are my favorite sponges on Amazon.)
When I'm done with dinner every night and shutting down the kitchen, I throw my kitchen sponge into the dishwasher with the dishes. I find it the simplest way to keep the sponge clean and as germ-free as possible.
Make sure you run your dishwasher at the hottest temp you can to fully sanitize the sponge (not to mention your dishes).
And if you don't have a dishwasher or for some reason prefer not to put your sponge in there, you can also sanitize it in the microwave--just put your wet sponge in the microwave and heat on high for 1-2 minutes. Be careful taking it out as it might be hot.
If you don't have a dishwasher or microwave, soak your sponge in a bleach solution for several minutes: about 3/4 cup bleach per gallon of water ought to do it.
How often should you change your sponge? When it starts looking the worse for wear and bits of sponge are tearing off it, definitely change. I find this to be about every 2-3 weeks.
7. Wipe Down Surfaces After Cooking
I live with people who think that cleaning the kitchen means loading the dishwasher and scrubbing the dirty pots. While I appreciate this (and I do, I really do), I cringe a little bit when I see that nothing has been wiped down. There's grime all over the countertop, grease splatters all over the stove, crumbs on the floor. There might even be goop in the disposal which hasn't been run yet. And the cutting board may still be full of crumbs (indicating god-knows-what-else, too).
If you don't wipe your kitchen surfaces down after cooking, you're inviting two nasty creatures into your home: pathogens and insects (ants in particular). Both of these creatures live off human messes, and they love it when people neglect to wipe down their kitchen surfaces.
You don't need to sanitize with bleach (although I try to do this a couple of times a month), but some sort of all-purpose cleaner is necessary. Get rid of the crumbs, and get those surfaces gleaming. Put the cutting board in the dishwasher if you can, or spray it with cleaner and wipe it down as thoroughly as you do the counters.
If unexpected company drops by, you'll be so glad you did.
The Germiest Places In Your Kitchen
Here are some of the germiest, filthiest, grossest spots in your kitchen that you should pay extra close attention to keeping clean:
- Kitchen sponge (see above for cleaning instructions)
- Sink--especially the drain and the faucet screen and handles. Soak the faucet screen in bleach to sanitize and wipe the handles down daily with all-purpose cleaner.
- Stove knobs: Remove and wash in soapy water at least once a week.
- Salt and pepper shakers and other condiment containers: wipe down with all-purpose cleaner at least once a week. (And keep in mind that these items are also usually filthy in restaurants, too.)
There you have it: 21 tips for a safer kitchen. Kitchen safety is sooo important. These tips are by no means exhaustive. If you have any tips you'd like to share, or other thoughts or opinions, please leave them in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!