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How to Defrost Food Safely So That No One Gets Sick

Updated on March 24, 2017
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Growing up, I remember my parents and friends parents running packages of chicken under hot water, floating frozen pot roast in the sink, and throwing dishes of frozen food in the microwave to thaw. It wasn't until I began cooking for my own children that I wondered what the proper way to thaw frozen meats, veggies, and other food products really was.

After much research I found that some of these old practices are quite safe while others are a total night of vomiting waiting to happen. Yikes! Read on for more about how to safely thaw food, as well as classic tactics to avoid.

How Should Frozen Food Be Thawed?

Frozen food should be thawed in the microwave, in cold water, or in the refrigerator.

Always thaw food in it's original packaging, if possible, to keep leaking juices and condensation to a minimum.


Refrigerator Thawing

Refrigerator thawing is by far the safest, but also lengthiest way to thaw frozen food.

Place each frozen item in it's own shallow container (like a Pyrex dish!), uncovered, and place it in the refrigerator. This way, any condensation or juices that roll off the food will collect in the dish instead of pooling potentially dangerous bacteria around your fridge, cross contaminating the surrounding items.

If you're defrosting your Thanksgiving turkey, throw it in on Tuesday to have it thawed and ready for the oven by Thursday. Once thawed, most foods can remain safely in the fridge for up to two days.

Separate raw foods like uncooked poultry from other ingredients like fresh veggies to keep your food safe from cross-contamination of bacteria.
Separate raw foods like uncooked poultry from other ingredients like fresh veggies to keep your food safe from cross-contamination of bacteria. | Source

Microwave Thawing

This is pretty easy. Simply place the frozen item on a microwave safe plate if necessary, and hit "defrost." On most new microwaves you can defrost by weight or time.

Cook the food immediately after thawing.

Cold Water Thawing

To thaw frozen food in cold water, run the package under cold water until it's softened. For bigger items, submerge the package in a sink full of cold water, making sure to change the water out every thirty minutes, ensuring that the water temperature remains safe.

Do Not

Do not thaw food on the counter top or in hot water! Thawing food this way is dangerous because it heats up the outer part of the food to a temperature conducive to the growth of bacteria, while the inner part remains frozen--rendering it unsafe to consume.

How Long Can Food Stay Out For?

When you're done serving a meal, wrap up leftovers and promptly refrigerate them rather than allowing them to sit out.
When you're done serving a meal, wrap up leftovers and promptly refrigerate them rather than allowing them to sit out. | Source

The general rule of thumb is that food can stay out, unrefrigerated for up to two hours. That being said, for especially perishable foods like meats and seafood, it's best to immediately refrigerate these items as soon as a meal is over to prevent food from entering the Danger Zone - the temperature range at which food items become susceptible to bacteria that can make people sick if consumed.

Handy Kitchen Cleaning Tips

  • Keep a thing of disinfectant wipes out where you can see them, like on top of the refrigerator or next to the toaster, that way you'll easily remember to wipe off counter tops and handles in the evening for a fresh, clean start to the morning. Don't use your kitchen sponge--think about it, it's full of all the yummies from last night's enchiladas.
  • Purchase a mop with disposable mopping pads for quick cleanups after spills.
  • Make a habit of choosing one day of the week to clean up the fridge. Throw out old food and wipe down drawers and shelves while you're at it.
  • While you're cleaning the fridge out, throw a bowl of two parts water, one part white vinegar in the microwave and set for eight minutes. Carefully remove the bowl (it will be boiling hot, literally!) and wipe out the microwave with a clean sponge. The white vinegar will also work to deodorize!
  • If you have a dishwasher, throw your kitchen sponge in with each load for a quick disinfecting.

How Long Should Meat Cook For?

The amount of time meat should cook for varies by what you're cooking and how large a portion. Use these handy guides next time you're wondering how long to throw that pork loin in for.


Remember that it's always best to err on the side of well-done rather than medium-well or under-done, especially when it comes to feeding children or those susceptible to foodborne illnesses like pregnant women and the elderly.

Do You Have To Cook Meat Before Putting it In The Crockpot?

Nope! As long as you cook the meat -- and whatever other ingredients you've added-- thuroughly in the crockpot before serving, the food will be fine.

What is Cross Contamination?

Always thoroughly clean up your food prep areas after cooking or baking to ensure a safe kitchen environment.
Always thoroughly clean up your food prep areas after cooking or baking to ensure a safe kitchen environment. | Source

Cross Contamination occurs when bacteria is spread from one food to another. An example of this is if you were to chop lettuce for a salad with the same knife used to slice raw chicken before throwing it in the pan to cook. Dangerous bacteria from the chicken has now been transferred to the uncooked lettuce via the knife, inevitably resulting in harmful effects.

This is why it is necessary to use different utensils when preparing a meal that will include both raw and cooked ingredients.

What Temperature Should the Freezer Be?

Freezers should be set at 0 degrees fahrenheit.

About Food-borne Illnesses

Preventing food-borne illnesses like botulism by keeping your food prep area clean and following safe-handling guidelines as you make and serve meals.
Preventing food-borne illnesses like botulism by keeping your food prep area clean and following safe-handling guidelines as you make and serve meals. | Source

The CDC estimates that nearly three-thousand people die of foodborne illnesses every year in the United States. That doesn't include the thousands that are hospitalized and treated for food poisoning each year. Foodborne illnesses are caused by harmful bacteria ingested through the unsafe handling of food. Some of these illnesses include botulism, salmonella, and E.coli.

Improper food handling can also spread parasitic and viral illnesses like Heptatis A and Toxoplasmosis.

Washing one's hands before preparing food and after handling raw meats and eggs is pertinent to preventing foodborne illnesses, as is thoroughly washing and drying fresh fruits and vegetables before serving and properly cleaning up preparation areas after cooking a meal.

How Often Do You Clean Out Your Fridge?

Be Honest!

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What Temperature Should the Refrigerator Be?

The refrigerator temperature should be set no higher than 40 degrees fahrenheit.

Make it a habit to sniff, inspect, and clean out your food items each week so you never have to wonder how long that jar of mayo has been sitting in the back of the fridge.
Make it a habit to sniff, inspect, and clean out your food items each week so you never have to wonder how long that jar of mayo has been sitting in the back of the fridge. | Source

How Should Food be Stored?

Food should be stored neatly in the refrigerator, not all haphazard in little tetris-like towers. This way, each item is remaining cool and safe.

Label storage containers so you and your family can easily identify food that's been hanging out too long. It's a good idea too, to label when you've opened certain foods that begin to perish as soon as their seal has been broken--like sour cream and cottage cheese.

Place milk, meat, and yogurt at the back of the refrigerator where it's coldest, and save the door of the fridge for less temp sensitive foods like mustard, pickles, and butter.

Certain foods like potatoes, onions, and tomatoes should not be refrigerated, but should be stored separately in a cool, dry place.

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very useful information about an important topic. Thank you

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image
      Author

      Kierstin Gunsberg 2 years ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Oh, thank you Billy! Being a stay-at-home mom has made me that much more aware of kitchen and food safety = )

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 2 years ago from Central Florida

      Kierstin, my son and I both came down with Hepatitis A in 1996. He was an extremely picky eater when he was little. I'm not sure from where we contracted it. It was either the deli cheese from the grocery store or chicken McNuggets from Mickey D's. I'm suspecting the former since the cooking process usually kills any contaminates.

      It was awful. I felt like I was going to die the pain was so bad!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 13 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great tips on how to thaw food and keep them cold in the fridge. Very useful and handy for everyone to know about food safety. Nice work!

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image
      Author

      Kierstin Gunsberg 13 months ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Thanks Kristen! I figure since I'm always looking online for this kind of info, someone else is too!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 13 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      My pleasure. For sure. We all need life hacks everywhere.

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