What actually causes food poisoning? How you and your family can avoid getting sick.

Queensland Health
Thanks to our brand partner, Queensland Health

As a paediatric nutritionist and mum to two young kids, I know first-hand the stress, upset and exhaustion when the little ones are unwell.

Food poisoning can be one of the more frequent offenders, throwing little bodies out of whack for long periods, affecting hydration and blood sugar levels and sometimes even impacting the entire family at the same time (!).

Queensland is a great place to live with its sub-tropical weather, unfortunately, food poisoning becomes all too common in this weather because it is when bacteria thrive. The fact is, thousands of adults and children end up being hospitalised each year from contracting food poisoning.

While much blame is heaped on restaurants or fast food outlets, the scary truth is that many of us use unsafe food practices in our very own homes… without even realising it.

Food poisoning
It takes just a little bit of effort to avoid a whole lot of pain later. Image: Getty.

This is something that I’m passionate about reducing and a topic that I discuss in depth in my book Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook.

Getting the youngest members of the family involved in safe, hygienic food preparation, cooking and storage habits from an early age is a good way to prevent food poisoning and instil all-important life skills too (see my recent post on Preparing a chicken dish? Here’s what you absolutely shouldn’t do). Now, let's get on top of food poisoning:

What causes food poisoning?

Put simply, food poisoning can occur when food is contaminated with bacteria or germs, which then rapidly multiply. While this happens due to a range of reasons, the most common cause is cross-contamination from other foods.

Bacteria thrives in warm environments, making the Queensland heat an ideal bacteria breeding ground - take note if you live up north or in hotter parts of Australia. But there are ways to enjoying life with family and friends and not in a hospital bed.


Which foods should I look out for?

When we think of food poisoning, we often immediately think of chicken, however eggs are high up on the list too. In fact, eggs can contain salmonella which is one of the leading causes of food poisoning. Don’t be put off cooking with eggs, however - they’re incredibly nutritious and versatile, packed with protein, a broad range of vitamins and healthy fats.

Here are my top tips to help avoid food contamination and reduce the risk of food poisoning in the home:

1. Cook your food thoroughly.

I encourage families that I see in my clinic and workshops to always make sure that their food is thoroughly cooked. This means firm egg whites and poultry and meat are cooked correctly!

The easiest way to check if poultry and meat are properly cooked is to slice open the thickest section and look for clear juices and an absence of pink or indications of raw meat. If in doubt, cook it a little longer to be on the safe side.

2. Don’t wash your eggs!

Due to the fact that eggshells are porous, washing an egg can remove the natural protective bacterial layer and allow surface bacteria to leach into the egg itself. The safest temperature to store eggs is below 15ºC, so in hot or humid weather, that means straight into the fridge as soon as possible.

Meal prep
Be careful with eggs, meats and temperatures. Image: Getty.

3. Store your food at the right temperature.

An easy rule is to keep hot food hot, and cold food cold. Bacteria thrive and rapidly multiply within the temperature danger zone which is  between 5 and 60ºC, so it’s incredibly important not to allow your food to sit out on the bench for too long before you eat.

It’s vital for the whole family to understand the importance of putting food back in the fridge and the reasons for it, too. If food has been at room temperature for more than four hours, I’d recommend throwing it away, rather than repurposing and risking illness.

A helpful alternate option could be to arm yourselves with an esky and ice packs when you’re heading out for a fun family picnic or barbecue. For more information on food temperatures, the Queensland Health's food safety guide is really helpful.


4. Clean your utensils during prep.

The easiest way to avoid cross-contamination is to keep your utensils clean while you’re cooking. In my home, we have a dedicated knife and chopping board for chicken to minimise the chance of cross-contamination.

I like to emphasise to my kids the importance of cleaning as I cook too, especially with high-risk foods like chicken.

It's little things like this that can stop a bout of food poisoning in its tracks in your own home kitchen. If only it were that easy to predict in restaurants!

Have you ever had food poisoning? What's the best way to avoid it, in your opinion? Tell us below.

Mandy Sacher is a paediatric nutritionist, mum and author of the Wholesome Child: Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook, which includes a host of nutritional information and guidance, along with over 140 allergy-friendly recipes and a range of menu planners suitable for busy families. It’s available to purchase online or via iTunes. Connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.

This content was created with thanks to our brand partner, Queensland Health.

Click here for more tips on food safety.