12 Tips for the Holidays

12 Tips for the Holidays

Red and green Christmas tree ornaments in a clear bowl

Photo source: UF/IFAS Northwest District

The holiday season is here and, with it, many colorful decorations, delicious treats, and fun events.  There also are hidden dangers that can mar this special time of year if we aren’t careful.  Follow these twelve tips for a safe holiday celebration:

  1. To reduce fire risk, do not connect more than three strings of incandescent lights.  Follow label guidelines for stringing together LED lights.  Check lights for frayed or exposed wires, loose connections, and broken sockets and replace as needed.
  2. Place candles on stable surfaces away from trees, curtains, and other flammable items and out of reach of children.  Never leave burning candles unattended or sleep in a room with a lit candle.  Consider using battery-operated candles.
  3. Use caution when decorating with “angel hair” and artificial snow.  Angel hair is made from spun glass and can irritate eyes and skin; always wear gloves when handling or use non-flammable cotton instead.  Artificial snow can irritate your lungs if inhaled; follow package directions carefully.
  4. Keep kids and pets in mind when decorating the tree.  Place breakable ornaments or ones with metal hooks near the top out of reach of little hands, playful paws, and wagging tails.
  5. Use a sturdy step ladder, not chairs or other furniture, to reach high places.  Get someone to “spot” you and assist with handing or taking items.
  6. If you use a fireplace, have your chimney checked and cleaned at least once a year by a certified chimney sweep.  Cleaning removes soot and other by-products that can lead to chimney fires and carbon monoxide intrusion into your living space.
  7. Use special care when giving toys that use coin lithium batteries to children.  Older children’s devices with these batteries can be enticing to young children.  Ingestion of button batteries can cause serious injury or death.  Lock away spare batteries and closely supervise young children around products with button batteries.  In case of ingestion, contact the 24-hour National Battery Ingestion Hotline, (800) 498-8666.
  8. If you want to fry a turkey, consider using an oil-less turkey fryer or purchase a fried turkey from a professional establishment.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that since 2002, there have been 168 turkey-related fires, burns, explosions, or carbon monoxide poisoning incidents, 672 injuries, and $8 million in property damage.  Don’t add to the statistic count!
  9. Use a food thermometer to ensure meat reaches a safe internal temperature.  Click here for a convenient temperature chart.
  10. Refrigerate food within two hours. Cut leftover meat in small pieces and store foods in shallow containers so they will chill quickly.  Use leftovers within four days or freeze or discard.
  11. Reheat sauces, soups, and gravies to a rolling boil before serving.
  12. Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water to reduce your risk of illness.

Have a happy, healthy holiday season!

Sources:
National Safety Council
Chimney Safety Institute of America
Electrical Safety Foundation International

Cleaning Your Refrigerator After a Power Outage

Cleaning Your Refrigerator After a Power Outage

Photo source: UF/IFAS Northwest District

After an extended power outage, your refrigerator and freezer may develop unpleasant odors from spoiled food. To get rid of these odors, remove all food items and clean the inside, including drawers and bins, with a mild cleaning solution of dish soap and water.  You also can use a solution of 2 tablespoons baking soda and 4 cups warm water.  Strong cleansers may affect the taste of food or ice cubes or damage the interior finish. Rinse with a bleach solution of one tablespoon unscented chlorine bleach per gallon of water to sanitize. Lemon juice and water solutions are not strong enough to sanitize effectively. Leave the unit unplugged with the door open for 1-2 days to air out.  Spray disinfectant around hinges, locks, and into any openings.

If odors persist, try one of these methods:

  • Spread activated charcoal, clean cat litter, or baking soda on trays and place on refrigerator or freezer shelves.  Activated charcoal is extra dry and absorbs odors more quickly than cooking-type charcoal.  It is available at drug or pet supply stores.  Run the appliance empty for 2-3 days.  If the odor remains, replace with new charcoal and repeat.
  • Place trays of freshly ground coffee on appliance shelves and close the door.  Run the appliance empty for 2-3 days.  If a slight coffee aroma remains, wash and rinse shelves and the aroma should dissipate.
  • Pack each shelf with crumpled newspaper. Set a cup of water on the top shelf or sprinkle the newspaper with water.  Allow appliance to run for approximately 5-6 days.  While this method is time-consuming, it is effective in removing strong odors.
  • Use a commercial product designed for refrigerator and freezer odor removal.  These products are available at hardware, grocery, discount, and variety stores.

Once the odor is gone, rinse and dry the appliance.  Don’t forget to clean gaskets with a mild cleaning solution and warm water; rinse and dry.  Dirt and spills can prevent the gasket from sealing well, resulting in a loss of cold air and higher utility bills.  Also, clean the coils and front grill with a brush or vacuum cleaner to remove dirt that can hinder air flow to the condenser.

Use an appliance thermometer to check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer.  The refrigerator should be between 33˚F and 40˚F and the freezer at 0 degrees or below.

If there is still an odor after trying these steps, it is possible meat or fish drippings have seeped into the insulation.  An appliance service technician may need to remove the liner and replace the insulation or the appliance may need to be replaced.

Sources:
My Florida Home Book – University of Florida/IFAS Extension
Solving Odor Problems in Your Refrigerator or Freezer – University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cooperative Extension
When the Power Goes Off – Clemson Cooperative Extension
Cleaning the Fridge – North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension

 

After the storm, recovery begins

Downed trees after Hurricane Michael

Downed trees and other debris should be handled carefully. Use proper equipment and follow all safety precautions to avoid injury. (Photo source: Samantha Kennedy)

Hurricane Michael was a storm of historic proportions, slamming into the Florida Panhandle and wreaking havoc on millions of people across the Big Bend region. Now that the storm has passed, the recovery phase has begun. Damage assessment, debris removal, structural repairs, and food safety concerns are just a few aspects of storm recovery, as people seek to rebuild their lives and return to a sense of normalcy.

There are a lot of things to think about after a disaster and it can be overwhelming. The first priority should always be basic necessities: food, water, and shelter. Make sure any structure is safe enough for habitation.  If the structure’s integrity is compromised, seek alternate living arrangements.

Heed all boil water notices, if applicable. If boiling water is not possible, stick to using clean, bottled water for drinking, food preparation, and personal hygiene. Do not assume that because the food in the refrigerator is cool to the touch, that it is safe to eat.  Perishable food must be kept at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to be considered safe. If it is uncertain as to whether that temperature was maintained while the power was out, the food should be discarded. Discard any perishable food from refrigerators after a power outage longer than 4 hours.

Be careful when assessing damage after the storm. Wear sturdy shoes and avoid wading through floodwaters. Wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen when out in the sun. Drink plenty of clean water and maintain energy levels with small, nutrient-dense meals and snacks. Damaged tree limbs may continue to fall after the storm, so take heed of potential falling debris. Standing water can harbor snakes, fire ants, and other potentially dangerous critters, so take proper precautions at or around puddles or floodwater.

Use tools such as chainsaws and generators correctly and practice proper safety precautions.  Do not run a generator inside and store gas cans a safe distance from both the generator and the living space. Allow others more skilled with using a chainsaw to help with debris collection and removal. If dealing with large amounts of mold, be sure to wear protective clothing and the proper respiratory mask to avoid contact with spores.

Unfortunately, many dishonest people take advantage of situations such as natural disasters to prey on those in need. Beware of people offering to help with repairs quickly and/or for an extraordinarily low price. Only hire reputable licensed contractors, even if that means having to wait for services. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation myfloridalicense.com  maintains a list of licensed contractors in the state of Florida. The Better Business Bureau provides ratings for a variety of businesses, including contractors. Use these resources as a guide to finding the right contractor.

Contact insurance companies as soon as possible after the storm to get the claims process rolling. Have the policy on hand when the call is made to make the process easier. It would be helpful to document any damage and have those photos available to share with the insurance agent or claims adjuster.  Post-disaster is an extremely busy time for insurance companies, so be as cooperative and patient as possible during the process.

Disaster recovery is a very stressful time for everyone, often leading to confusion, anger, and helplessness. Reach out to existing support systems such as family, friends, churches, or other groups for emotional support. Practice self-care, such as regular meals and breaks. Establish a new normal routine and stick to it, especially for children. Most importantly, be kind to yourself and others during this difficult time.

The University of Florida IFAS Extension Service is a local resource for post-disaster education and assistance. More information about each of these topics and more can be provided by your local extension office.

The UF/IFAS Disaster Preparation & Recovery blog is a comprehensive resource to help with disaster recovery: http://disaster.ifas.ufl.edu/.

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.

Wasting Food is SO Outdated

Wasting Food is SO Outdated

Photo source: UF/IFAS Northwest District

If your family is like most, grocery shopping is a dreaded weekly task.  Typical shoppers usually have an idea of what they plan to purchase based on a previously made shopping list.  Even then, it’s easy to go astray with impulse purchasing, bargain prices, and buy-one-get-one free opportunities that simply can’t be passed up!  Before you know it, the shopping cart is loaded with delicious treasures just begging to come home with you.

Now that you have done the shopping, transported it home, and begun to put food items in their appropriate storage places, you realize the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry are cramped and nearly full.  On a related aside, you should see my parents’ pantry.  They have enough cans, boxes, and packages to feed their entire neighborhood…twice!  Not to mention the two full size refrigerator/freezers that are bursting at the seams.  Like my parents, I suspect many of us have a food overbuying addiction.  So what happens next?  Well, it’s time to clear out the old and make way for the new, of course.  But how do you know what to purge and what is still good to keep?

Food Date Labeling Confusion and Food Waste

Standard or uniform language for food product dating does not exist in the U.S., which makes things tricky when it comes to deciphering expiration dates.  Current Federal regulations do not require product dating (excluding infant formula), but instead allow food manufacturers to voluntarily set and display these dates on product packaging.  With the lack of Federal measures, product dating enforcement is left up to individual states, resulting in consumer confusion over food safety.  The U.S. wastes close to an estimated 40% of food produced annually, which equals approximately 160 billion pounds (Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic).  Of that, confusion over the meaning of date labels seems to be responsible for roughly 20% of safe and edible food wasted by consumers.  Undoubtedly, this hurts purchaser’s pocketbooks and results in $29,000,000,000 of wasted consumer spending yearly (Food Date Labeling Act of 2016, 114th Congress 2D Session).

Food Quality vs. Food Safety

While cleaning out the pantry and cold storage, I also have been guilty of trashing perfectly good food. So many of us unknowingly accept the stamped date as common law not to be questioned. So what does that date actually mean?

The “open” date used by the manufacturer or retailer on food packaging is passively thought of by the consumer as the “expiration date,” or the last date a food can safely be eaten.  This is a very common misconception.  Food safety is not represented by this date, but rather it refers to product quality and freshness.  Dates determined by food companies take into consideration such factors as ingredients, product characteristics and packaging, as well as time and temperatures associated with distribution, retail sale, and storage.

With no current standards in place, a variety of food date phrases are utilized which often are misleading to retailers and consumers.  Most commonly used phrases include:

  • “Best If Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.
  • “Sell-By” indicates to the retailer when the product should no longer be displayed for sale.
  • “Use-By” is the last date recommended for use of the product at peak quality. This is only a safety date when used on infant formula packaging.

It’s important to remember that open dates on food products ONLY reflect food quality and NOT food safety (except for infant formula).  For a list of specific foods and recommended storage time frames, check out the FoodKeeper resource at FoodSafety.gov.

Food Spoilage

Knowing the signs of spoilage will help you determine if a food is no longer fit for consumption.  Although the quality date may have passed, the food is safe until it begins to spoil.  Spoiled food may have a different smell, taste, and/or texture with sometimes visible discoloration.  This occurs when environmental conditions (such as temperature, moisture, and oxygen) are introduced which support the growth of bacteria, molds, or yeasts.  Given enough time, these microorganisms multiply rapidly and affect the safety of the food.  If perishable items are not handled and stored properly, spoilage occurs much more rapidly.  Learn more about proper refrigeration and food safety.

Do Your Part at Home

  • Plan meals in advance and make a specific grocery list. Check the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry to utilize what you already have on hand.
  • Don’t overbuy! Especially be aware not to purchase excess perishable items that are likely to spoil quickly.  These may be foods that require cold storage, fresh bakery items, and fresh produce.
  • Always look for and compare date labels of an item; choose the one with a later date.
  • Store foods promptly and properly for food safety and best quality. Discard potentially hazardous cold food items that have not been properly refrigerated for 2 hours or more.
  • Keep a thermometer inside the front of your refrigerator and check it regularly to be sure it stays below 40 degrees F.
  • Thaw foods safely! Thawing in the refrigerator is the safest way, but using cold running water or defrosting in the microwave are acceptable ways to speed up the process. Never sit foods out at room temperature to thaw!
  • Recognize the signs of food spoilage and promptly discard foods that smell funny, have off-flavors, obvious mold growth, or sticky or slimy textures (such as fish, poultry, and deli meats).
  • Evaluate each item in your pantry and consider whether or not it’s something you want to continue to store and use or want to remove.
  • High temperatures affect the shelf life of shelf-stable foods so it’s important to store dry goods and pantry items in temperatures at or below 85 degrees F. Use the “First In First Out” (FIFO) method of rotation, using older items before newly purchased ones.  Read more about Shelf Stable Food Safety.
  • Discard cans that are rusty, bulging, or leaking, as they are at a high risk for containing the deadly pathogen that causes Botulism. Never taste suspicious foods!  Take extra caution by disposing of cans and jars into a tightly closed plastic bag before placing in an outside trash receptacle.

Help Families in Need & Keep Unused Wholesome Food Out of Landfills

Mistakenly discarded food products, not only is the U.S. but globally, have created a sad cascade of wasted resources and money with increasingly negative environmental and social implications.  Food banks and local community organizations have plenty of under-served and needy families who can benefit! Remember, it’s safe to donate dry and canned goods, perishables, and other food related items that are beyond the quality date of the product.

Find a food bank near you.

We all can do our part to reduce the amount of wasted food, save money, help the environment, and help our communities!

 

Additional Resources:

https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/sources.htm

https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/resources/donations.htm

USDA Food Safety Information, Food Product Dating

USDA Food Labeling Fact Sheets

 

Preparing Your Emergency Water Supply

Gallon jug of water.

Commercially bottled water is a great choice for your emergency water supply. Store the bottles in a cool, dry place and have enough water on hand for each person (including pets) to have 1 gallon of water per day for 7 days. (Photo source: Samantha Kennedy)

Hurricane season is in full swing and will last through November 30. If you have not prepared your emergency supply kit, now is the time, BEFORE a hurricane is imminent.

The most important item in your emergency supply kit is clean drinking water. Clean water is essential for drinking, cooking, and basic personal hygiene during and after an emergency event.

You may stock up on clean water in one of two ways: by purchasing commercially bottled water from the supermarket, or by bottling it yourself.

If you purchase commercially bottled water, take heed of the use by date. While water does not spoil, per se, the quality of the water can diminish over time.  The bottles may also start to break down as well, causing leakage or contamination.  It is recommended to replace your emergency drinking water supply each year to maintain optimal safety and freshness.

Bottling your own water takes a little more effort, but can be just as safe as and will cost less than buying it commercially. Choose the proper containers.  Glass may be sturdy, but it is heavy and can break, so use it sparingly. Plastic two-liter soda bottles and gallon-sized water jugs are ideal for storing water.  Only use food-grade plastic containers and not containers previously used for chemicals such as bleach.

Sanitize the containers with a solution of 1 teaspoon of bleach per quart of water. Rinse the containers with clean water after sanitizing. Once the containers are filled with clean water, seal them with tight-fitting caps, label them as drinking water along with the bottling date, and store bottles in a cool, dry place.

Be sure to follow all boil water notices, especially if your water comes from a municipal source. If you get your water from a private well and are uncertain whether it is contaminated, it is better to err on the side of caution and boil water vigorously for 3 to 4 minutes before using it.

Boiling water is the most effective way to kill harmful bacteria that may be present.  However, another effective means of purifying water is by adding bleach to the water. The type of bleach is important. Only use 5.25% household bleach free of perfumes, dyes, and color-safe or other additives. Eight (8) drops of bleach per gallon for clear water or 16 drops per gallon for cloudy water are the recommended amounts for effective purification.

How much water should you store in your emergency supply kit? At a minimum, one (1) gallon per person (including pets) per day for at least seven days is the recommended amount. This should be enough for drinking, food preparation, and basic personal hygiene. You may want to store more water as a precaution, if necessary.

For more information about preparing an emergency water supply, please refer to the UF/IFAS publication Preparing and Storing an Emergency Safe Drinking Water Supply.

Summer Canning Methods with Your Children

Youth learn food preservation skills. Photo source: Melanie Taylor

At this point in the summer, many parents are at a loss for what to do to keep their children engaged and “off the couch.” How about a focus on healthy eating and food preservation? If you have a backyard garden be sure to pick the fruits and vegetables at their peak readiness. If you do not have a garden make a family trip to the local farmers market and/or a local u-pick farm.

Of course, fresh fruits and vegetables are full of nutrition and taste, but if you have or buy more than your family can eat in a few days’ time, be sure to make preparations to teach your children how to preserve those foods to eat later in the year. There is nothing more enjoyable than having fruit jam on biscuits or summer vegetables in your soup during the cold depths of winter.

There are six different methods of food preservation to teach your children. They are boiling water/water bath canning, making jam, pickling, freezing, drying, and pressure canning. The easiest method being freezing and the most complex and time consuming being pressure canning. No matter which ones you choose to teach your children be sure to follow valid recipes and procedures. Family and Consumer Science Extension Agents always recommend using the most current recipes and procedures from The National Center for Home Food Preservation, which are maintained at https://nchfp.uga.edu/. The National Center for Home Food Preservation is your source for current research-based recommendations for most methods of home food preservation. The Center was established with funding from the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (CSREES-USDA) to address food safety concerns for those who practice and teach home food preservation and processing methods. Many of the recipes are available for free on the website, or you can order the 6th edition of the “So Easy to Preserve” food preservation book at https://setp.uga.edu/.

Specific to children, there is also a Put It Up! Food Preservation for Youth curriculum through the University of Georgia, which is a series of informal educational lessons that guide youth to explore and understand the science of safe food preservation. This free curriculum can be found online at https://ugeorgia.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_a5Y4IfBZ2Vh0EIt after a quick questionnaire of how you plan to use the curriculum.

Teaching these food preservation skills to your children will be a fun-filled and very educational opportunity. Be sure to use the above resources to assist you in the food safety methods to be certain your products are safe for consumption. Enjoy this special time in the garden and kitchen with your children this summer.

Resources:

National Center for Home Food Preservation https://nchfp.uga.edu/

“So Easy to Preserve” https://setp.uga.edu/

Put It Up! Food Preservation for Youth https://ugeorgia.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_a5Y4IfBZ2Vh0EIt