Pumpkins are the Stars of Autumn

Pumpkins are the Stars of Autumn

Now that it is finally starting to feel like autumn here in north Florida, I have begun to see more and more fall-themed decorations. While the leaves may not change color as much as they do farther north, we do have easy access to another autumn staple: pumpkins.

Pumpkins can be grown in Florida. They are part of the cucurbit family of vegetables that includes other winter and summer squashes such as acorn, butternut, lemon, and zucchini. The four species of pumpkins include pepo, moschata, mixta, and maxima. They have a coarse, strongly flavored flesh and rinds whose hardness falls between that of winter (hard) and summer (soft) squashes.

a pumpkin patch

Pumpkins are an autumn staple, providing not just festive decorations, but also nutritious additions to meals and desserts. (Photo source: Amy Stuart, UF/IFAS)

The three major categories of pumpkins are carving pumpkins, pie pumpkins, and ornamental pumpkins. Each type has its own unique characteristics. Carving pumpkins are large and have smooth, orange, and slightly ribbed skin. Pie pumpkins are smaller, have a sweeter taste, and bright, firm flesh. Ornamental pumpkins are tiny, about 3-4 inches in diameter, and can be orange, white, or variegated.

Pumpkins, like tomatoes, are botanically fruits, but are commercially considered vegetables. While their rinds are generally not edible, both their flesh and seeds can be eaten. Pumpkin can be canned, pureed, roasted, and made into soups, stews, and, of course, pies. Pumpkin seeds are most commonly roasted and eaten on their own as a snack or added to salads and other dishes for a bit of delicious crunch.

As a food source, pumpkins are very nutritious. They are low in fat, calories, sugar, and sodium. A single serving of pumpkin contains 10% of the daily value of potassium and 3 grams of fiber, both of which are vital to good health. Pumpkin also contains a variety of other beneficial nutrients such as vitamin C, calcium, and iron. However, pumpkin is a vitamin A powerhouse. One serving contains 250% of the daily value of this vitamin, which helps promote healthy eyes, skin, and bones.  In fact, the beta carotene in pumpkins, which our bodies convert to vitamin A, is what gives pumpkins their vibrant orange color.

According to the University of Florida IFAS, most pumpkin varieties need around four months to reach maturity. To be ready for Halloween, pumpkins should be planted no later than early July. Spring pumpkins planted in March or April can be stored for use in October and November if stored properly in a cool, dry place.

When carving pumpkins, be sure to use the proper tools. Remove the seeds and pulp, and save the seeds for roasting and/or planting. When preparing pumpkins for canning, use smaller sugar or pie pumpkins. Cut them into cubes and do not mash or puree them. When making pumpkin pie, choose the smaller, sweeter pumpkins for the best flavor. Commercially canned pumpkin also can be used to make pumpkin pie.

One final note: do not confuse gourds and pumpkins. While, technically, all pumpkins can be considered gourds, not all gourds are edible. What we think of as gourds are usually the hard, bumpy things with the hollow center that are commonly found in fall decorations. While they are part of the same cucurbit family, they are primarily grown for ornamentation, utensils, and general interest.

Nothing says autumn like a few festive pumpkins. Whether used for a scary Halloween jack-o’-lantern, as a centerpiece for fall decorations, or as an ingredient in a delicious fall dessert, pumpkins are definitely the stars of autumn.

For more information about pumpkins, please call Samantha Kennedy, Family and Consumer Sciences agent, at 850.926.3931.

Additional Resources:

Florida Pumpkins – UF/IFAS Extension
Perfectly Pumpkin Recipe Collection – University of Nebraska – Lincoln Extension
Pumpkin carving: The history of the jack-o’-lantern – Michigan State University Extension

Extension classes are open to everyone regardless of race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations.

What grade would your kitchen get?

What grade would your kitchen get?

If you are anything like me, you pride yourself on keeping your kitchen safe and clean. Everything is tidy and in its place, there is no expired food in the pantry or refrigerator, and all the appliances are clean and free of debris.

But really. How clean is your kitchen? Out of curiosity, I recently graded the cleanliness of my kitchen using this handy checklist from Rutgers University. And while I received a pretty good grade, there were a few things I discovered I was not doing correctly. As a food safety instructor, I was ashamed of myself!

paper towel dispenser

The safest and most sanitary way to dry your hands is with disposable paper towels. Never use a dishtowel for anything other than drying dishes. (Photo source: Samantha Kennedy)

The top five things I overlooked are:

  1. While the inside of my microwave oven was clean and free of debris, I failed to pay enough attention to the door. It was a little grubby. While it may not seem important to keep it clean since it does not come in contact with food, gunky buildup from food and other sources can harbor bacteria. Be sure to always keep the door clean!
  2. I have a bad habit of using the same dishtowel to dry my hands that I use for other functions in the kitchen. The best food safety practice is to either use paper towels to dry your hands or have a designated towel for hand drying. In fact, dishtowels should only be used to dry dishes, not to wipe down countertops or clean up spills.
  3. While I hate to admit it, I have sometimes resorted to thawing foods on the counter when I have realized that one of the ingredients for that night’s dinner is still in the freezer. THIS IS A VERY UNSAFE PRACTICE! Thawing foods at room temperature (i.e. on the counter) exposes foods to the Temperature Danger Zone, which can encourage the growth of pathogens. The Temperature Danger Zone is the range of temperatures between 41 and 135 degrees F. Keep cold foods below 41 degrees and hot foods above 135 degrees to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. There are only 4 acceptable methods to safely thaw foods:
  • In the refrigerator.
  • Under running water. (NOTE: The water temperature must always be less than 70 degrees F.)
  • In the microwave. (NOTE: The food must be cooked immediately after thawing.)
  • During the cooking process.
  1. I do not actually store a lot of leftovers. As a single person, I generally prepare small meals that can be eaten in one sitting. However, on those occasions when I do have leftovers, I do not always label them with the date. Leftovers stored in the freezer should be labeled with what it is and when it was put into the freezer. Refrigerated leftovers should not be kept longer than 7 days. Frozen leftovers should not be kept longer than 6 months.
  2. My cats are allowed in the kitchen and even on the countertops. While I always sanitize the surfaces before I prepare food, the best food safety practice is to prevent pets from coming into contact with countertops and other food contact surfaces.

How do you think your kitchen would fare? I encourage you to take a few minutes to grade your own kitchen to make sure you are doing everything you can to keep your kitchen as clean and sanitary as possible.

For more information about food and kitchen safety, please visit https://www.foodsafety.gov/.

Share Your Picnic with Food Safety This Summer

Share Your Picnic with Food Safety This Summer

Picnic foods on a checkered tablecloth

Picnics are a great way to share food and fun with friends and family. By following a few simple food safety tips, you can make sure foodborne illness doesn’t crash your party. (Photo source: UF/IFAS file photo)

There are few things more iconic during summer than a picnic.  There’s just something fresh and fun about sharing a meal in the park or at the beach with family and friends.  But just because you’re enjoying the warm, gentle breeze doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind.  By following a few simple food safety tips, you can ensure that your perfectly planned picnic doesn’t make you sick.

Plan appropriately.  Not all foods are picnic-appropriate.  Anything that requires a lot of perishable ingredients and/or a lot of preparation should be avoided.  Stick with foods that require little or no cooking and that contain just a few ingredients.  Foods such as fruits and vegetables (especially whole ones), hard cheeses, peanut butter and jelly, cereal, bread, and crackers are ideal picnic items.  Anything made with commercially processed custard or mayonnaise will stay safe as long as it is kept cold.

Pack it safely. Use a cooler, if possible, and store cold foods together so they can help each other stay colder longer.  Use ice or frozen gel packs to help keep foods cold.  Pack foods directly from the refrigerator into the cooler; don’t leave them sitting out before packing.  Store ready-to-eat foods separately from raw meats.  If packing up hot foods, be sure to keep them in a thermos or other insulated dish.  DO NOT store them in the same container as the cold foods.  Paper towels, disposable utensils, and a food thermometer are ideal picnic accessories.  Remember, keep cold foods below 41 degrees F and hot foods above 135 degrees F.  Do your best to keep the cooler away from direct sunlight by storing it in the shade and be sure to replenish the ice and/or frozen gel packs when they melt.  If possible, store drinks in a separate cooler so cold foods are not exposed to warm air with frequent openings of the lid to retrieve drinks.  This also reduces the risk of cross-contamination, with fewer hands reaching into the food cooler.

Prepare it carefully.  All food items should be kept at the proper temperature at all times.  When cooking raw meats, use separate plates for the raw and cooked products and clean and sanitize utensils between uses.  Cook meat to the proper recommended internal temperature to ensure doneness and safety.  Click here for a list of recommended internal cooking temperatures.

Clean up quickly.  Discard any perishable foods that have been left out for longer than two hours.  In really hot weather (generally above 90 degrees F), foods should not be left out longer than one hour.  Keep food protected in storage containers such as coolers and lidded dishes to minimize contamination from flies and other pests.  Serve small portions of food at a time and keep the rest in the cooler.

Picnics are an important part of summer and with just a little bit of planning and a few useful tips and tools, they can be safe and delicious for everyone!

Related links:
Food Safety at Tailgating (University of Florida/IFAS)
Picnic Safety (Iowa State University)
Checklist for the Perfect Summer Picnic (foodsafety.gov)

Extension classes are open to everyone regardless of race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations.

Six Common Falling Hazards in the Home

Six Common Falling Hazards in the Home

As we get older, our risk of falling increases. In fact, falling once doubles the chances of falling again. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of five falls causes serious injury such as broken bones or head injury. Over 300,000 people aged 65 or older are hospitalized each year for hip fractures caused by falls.

Properly installed handrails in bathrooms and other high traffic areas can greatly reduce the risk of falling. (Photo source: Samantha Kennedy)

Most fall injuries occur in the home. We think of our homes as our safe space and sanctuary, often overlooking potential dangers. Here are six common hazards that occur in the home that can contribute to an increased risk of falling.

Clutter. Items that block or limit walkways in the home can be tripping hazards. Having to navigate around excess furniture or boxes can be difficult for someone with limited mobility. Clear out the clutter and keep walkways free of extraneous items. Wide open hallways and other spaces in the home will reduce potential tripping hazards.

Rugs. Rugs large and small can be tripping hazards. People can catch their toes underneath a rug’s edge or the rug itself can slip out from under them, causing a fall. Remove any rugs that are not necessary, such as rugs set out strictly for decoration. Apply slip-resistant backing to rugs to keep them from sliding across the floor.

Lighting. Dim lighting can make it difficult to see potential tripping hazards. Install brighter lights, especially in walkways and stairwells. Use nightlights in hallways and bathrooms to help navigate more easily at night.

Storage. Many falls occur when people are trying to reach items that are stored out-of-reach. Rearrange items, especially those used most often, in cabinets and on shelves so they can be reached easily without needing a step ladder.

Handrails. The lack of handrails or handrails that are broken or installed incorrectly can contribute to falls. The extra support and stability provided by handrails is vital, especially for those with limited mobility. Installing proper handrails in the bathroom (including the toilet and shower) and on stairs can greatly reduce the risk of falling.

Pets. Small pets can contribute to falls by inadvertently acting as a tripping hazard. Be aware of where pets are and tread carefully around them. When walking a pet, keep them on a tight leash and do not let them wrap around feet or legs.

Another great way to help reduce the risk of falling is through exercise. Strength and balance exercises such as Tai Chi help improve leg strength, balance, and flexibility. Some people also may benefit from calcium and vitamin D supplements, which can improve bone strength. Always consult a physician before taking any supplement.

Related articles:
Important Facts about Falls (CDC)
Fall Prevention (UF/IFAS Extension)

Extension classes are open to everyone regardless of race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations.

Make Grocery Shopping Sustainable

Make Grocery Shopping Sustainable

reusable shopping bags

One way to be more sustainable when shopping for groceries is to use reusable shopping bags. They’re durable and sturdy and can help reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in the landfill each year. (Photo source: Samantha Kennedy)

Sustainability should not just be a buzzword during Earth Month.  The fact that everybody either shops for or eats groceries means the whole grocery shopping experience is a good time to reflect and improve upon what we can personally do to embrace issues of sustainability.

This year in April, the Earth Month theme focuses on Returning to Nature.  There is no better place to start a quest for personal sustainable improvement than the grocery store!  Grocery shopping truly embraces the three main areas of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social.  In fact, it has been well documented that the average family wastes about 25% of the food it purchases.  (Much of this ends up in a landfill and creates problems of its own.)

With a bit of forethought, meal planning before grocery shopping can help individuals and families apply sustainable best practices for environmental, economic, and social well-being.  In fact, many of the principles of sustainability can be effectively applied to both meal planning and grocery shopping.

RESPECT yourself.  Good nutrition is one of the keys to a healthy life. Improve health by keeping a balanced diet.  Vow to make healthier food choices for personal health and the environment.

REFUSE to use food products that do not fit your principles of sustainability. This may mean buying food with less packaging, eating more locally-grown fruits and vegetables, or looking for foods labeled as more responsibly sourced.

REDUCE the amount of food thrown out.  Planning meals ahead of time and writing out a grocery list are excellent ways to start living sustainably.  Planning not only saves money on groceries, it can save time and decrease the amount of personal food waste a family contributes.  (Remember, freezing products can prolong their life, so if you find that you’ve overbought, try preserving some of your bounty for later use.) Reducing the number of trips to the grocery store also can help save on fuel and transportation costs.

REUSE /REPURPOSE food for another occasion.  Careful meal planning helps ensure that leftovers from one meal can be incorporated into the next one, thereby reducing food waste.

RETHINK!  Healthy, nutritious, delicious, and inexpensive grocery choices can be found in every food group.  Not all food has to be prepackaged.  In fact, with a bit of planning, dinner can be on the table in 15 minutes.  (That’s less time than it takes to wait in line at a fast food restaurant.)

BE RESPONSIBLE!  Use what you buy.

Stock up on low-cost healthy grain products like whole-wheat noodles, brown rice, and store-brand cereals and oatmeal.

Purchase fruits and vegetables that are in season and cost less.  In addition, do not forget that frozen, dried, and canned fruits and vegetables can play an important part in meal planning.

Buy the largest size you can effectively use before it reaches the expiration date – and look for the items with the latest dates.  Purchase store brands or generic brands whenever possible. Keep in mind smaller containers tend to cost more, no matter what the food group. Buying larger packages and dividing them into smaller portions can save money and reduce the amount of packaging that ends up in the landfill. Investing in small, reusable storage containers will save money and reduce waste in the end.

Practice Meatless Monday.  The protein group provides inexpensive protein sources like beans, lentils, and eggs, which can be substituted for meat in many meals.

Protein does not have to be the most expensive item purchased.  Consulting the store’s weekly sales flyer during meal planning can help you plan meals around meat and poultry items that are on sale.

Prepare food your family will actually eat.  There are two schools of thought here: preparing just enough for one meal or preparing big-batch recipes that provide leftovers which can be frozen for later use. Either practice can be sustainable. Freeze leftovers only if you’re going to use them. Otherwise, cut down on the amount of food cooked to help reduce food waste.

Learn how to cook.  Prepare and eat more meals at home.  It is sustainable, good for you, and delicious. Meals cooked at home are more nutritious, less expensive, and result in less overall waste, such as packaging.

Two additional ways to be more sustainable when grocery shopping are to use reusable shopping bags and to stop using single-use plastic produce bags. Plastic grocery bags choke our landfills and end up in our water bodies. They are not biodegradable and can last thousands of years virtually intact. Reusable shopping bags are made from recycled materials and can drastically reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in the trash each year.

For more information on making your grocery shopping more sustainable, check out these related articles:
Freezing: Nature’s Pause Button (UF/IFAS Extension)
What’s in your FREEZER? (UF/IFAS Extension)
Best Practices for Shoppers at the Farmers’ Market (UF/IFAS Extension)
Sustainable Grocery Shopping (University of Northern Iowa)

Picture, name, and bio of UF FCS agents: Heidi Copeland and Samantha Kennedy

UF/IFAS Family and Consumer Sciences Agents Heidi Copeland and Samantha Kennedy