You’ve probably heard the old phrase, “Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.” It’s a pretty good rule to live by in the kitchen and at the grill. But does it always work to keep food safe? Let’s take a closer look at food poisoning.

Simply put, food poisoning is eating anything that contains bacteria such as salmonella and listeria. Since these bacteria usually come from animals, it can be found in just about any meat or dairy—and even fruits and vegetables that are grown with animal-based fertilizers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 48 million Americans get food poisoning each year. That’s one in six people! Although it’s a common ailment, following these common-sense precautions can help keep your backyard barbecue from turning into an upset tummy fest.

The four C’s of food safety: Caution, Cold, Cook, Cover*

Caution: Cross-contamination, a very common mistake, can be avoided easily by following these simple rules:

  • Wash your hands often, with hot soapy water, when handling food. To be extra safe, dry your hands with a paper towel instead of a fabric one, and then discard it immediately instead of setting it on a kitchen counter or food prep surface.
  • Wash containers that held raw foods before placing cooked food in them.
  • Use different cutting boards for red meat, poultry, fish and seafood, dairy, and vegetables (many kitchen equipment stores sell color-coded cutting board sets).
  • Wash fruits and vegetables, especially leafy ones, to remove insects, dirt, and all traces of fertilizer.

Cold: Cold air helps prevent germs from growing. Perishable foods should be kept refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. This includes meat, dairy, and most produce as well as opened containers of condiments. If you’re not going to eat meat within a couple days of buying it, freeze it below 0 degrees (not 32 degrees). Don’t let refrigerated foods sit out more than two hours (only one hour if the air temp is higher than 90 degrees). And never thaw and refreeze any food.

You’ll also want to keep an eye on expiration dates, even with foods in your pantry, and throw away anything that looks or smells funny. Just remember that you can’t always tell if something has gone bad by the way it looks, smells, or tastes.

Cook: Internal temperature is the key; a meat thermometer is a chef’s best friend. You can’t tell if something is cooked sufficiently by looking at it or touching it. As a rule, cook the following foods to these internal temperatures before serving:

FOOD TEMP
Casseroles, leftovers 165
Poultry 165
Fish 145
Pork 145
Red meat (beef, lamb) 145

Save this handy Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures guide with more information about a wide variety of foods.

Cover: If you’re grilling outdoors, be sure to keep both raw and cooked foods covered with a lid, plastic wrap, or aluminum foil. If you’re serving food indoors, cover each entrée and side dish after it has been served. This not only helps maintain proper temperatures but also prevents household insects such as flies, ants, and mosquitoes from getting into food and depositing other contaminants.

What to do if you have food poisoning

Food poisoning can take effect anywhere from an hour or two to a couple days after you’ve eaten. Symptoms include nausea, stomach pain or cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting, and may pass quickly or linger a few days. If you’re concerned that you or a family member may have contracted food poisoning, trust in Teladoc. Our board-certified doctors are available 24/7 by app, web, and phone to help diagnose and provide treatment recommendations, and even prescribe medication when necessary.

*All temperatures are in degrees Fahrenheit.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly evolving. While we are continuously reviewing and updating our content, some of the information in this article may not reflect the most up-to-date scientific information. Please visit the online resources provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news, or reach out to Teladoc to speak with one of our board-certified physicians.