Food Safety for Seniors

Mature couple walking down dirt road

I recently gave a talk to a group of senior citizens at a local assisted living center on updated food safety issues. We reviewed the latest news in food science and emphasized the need to be vigilant about food safety practices. Today's bacteria are stronger, more pervasive in our lives and harder to control than in the past. Pesticide resistance and the overuse of antibiotics in animals and people have changed the medical community's ability to help other people maintain optimal health.

This does not jibe with the food safety habits seniors picked up in their younger days. My audience fondly remembered using the same dish for raw and cooked burgers at barbeques. We should not do that.

The introduction of hand sanitizers everywhere, especially at these assisted living centers means many people don't remember to wash their hands with soap and water.

Here is a list of important food safety practices everyone should follow, but seniors should be especially careful of because they are at a greater risk for food poisoning:

1) Always wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. The easy way to remember this is to sing "Happy Birthday” twice while washing up. Wash your hands after using the bathroom, before and after food preparation and certainly between handling raw meats and fresh fruits and vegetables.

2) Separate Don't Cross Contaminate. When cooking use separate cutting boards for handling raw meats vs. fruits and vegetables. Throw out old cutting boards and replace with new. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables with water before cutting and wash the cutting board with hot soapy water when finished.   Sanitize your counters and knives with a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water.

3) Do not leave prepared food out on the counter for more than two hours (one hour in warm weather). Always refrigerate food at 40 degrees or below and check refrigerate temperature regularly. Chilling food keeps most bacteria from growing.

4) Cook foods to the proper temperature. Use a digital thermometer when roasting, grilling or baking raw meat, fish or poultry. Proper cooking means that foods are cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria to prevent food poisoning. When you use a digital thermometer to check internal food temperatures you also prevent overcooking food. Cook eggs until the yolks and whites are firm. Download the Is My Food Safe? mobile app for a complete list of cooking temperatures.

6) When cooking soups or stews it is okay to place hot food in the refrigerator immediately provided you store the soups or stews in smaller quantity containers. This allows the contents to cool down equally, so that bacteria cannot grow in the warm spots. When reheating soups, sauces and gravies bring them up to a full boil before eating.

7) Defrost food in the refrigerator or in the microwave.Do not defrost food on the counter.  Refrigerators should not be overstuffed with food as free flow of cool air is necessary for proper refrigeration.

Seniors need to be especially careful about the safe purchase, storage and cooking preparation of their food. Raw, undercooked and unpasteurized foods may contain bacteria that cannot be challenged by the antibiotics we have available today anymore. Our best defense may be as simple as singing "Happy Birthday."


Robin Rood on Google
Robin Rood
Robin Rood, RD, LD, MEd, MA, writes about nutrition as a local expert for in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and blogs at