Gross-out alert! Keep your family healthy by tackling these germy spots in your kitchen ASAP.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
July 18, 2018
Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

Can you imagine serving dinner to your family…in the bathroom? Ew, right? But consider this: "There are more fecal bacteria on surfaces in the kitchen than the restroom in the average home," says Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at The University of Arizona who has been called "Dr. Germ".

Besides the serious ick-factor involved, there's another more serious issue with that level of contamination: Dirty kitchens are more likely to harbor the kinds of bacteria that can make you sick. It's estimated that food eaten at home causes up to 20 percent of foodborne illnesses, which are especially harmful to pregnant women and small children.

Among the germiest places in the kitchen are these five spots (some of these may surprise you!):

1. Kitchen towels & sponges

Warm, wet environments are breeding grounds for bacteria. In a study from NSF International, a public health and safety organization, researchers found that more than 75 percent of sponges and rags tested positive for coliform bacteria, which indicates potential fecal contamination. Damp, dirty kitchen towels can also become contaminated. 

Get it clean: Change out kitchen towels frequently and machine wash them in hot water. Microwave sponges for two minutes each day to sanitize them. Better yet, says Gerba, use paper towels and disinfectant wipes instead of reusables. Kitchen towels and disinfectant wipes work best in our studies," says Gerba. "Look at it this way. You'll use a lot more toilet paper if you get an infection from poor hygiene in the kitchen than you'll use paper towels in cleaning." Point taken.

2. Refrigerator drawers

Do you consider a thorough scrubbing of the refrigerator drawers a once-a-year spring cleaning task? (Sheepishly raises hand.) When NSF researchers swabbed drawers, they found salmonella, yeast, and mold in vegetable drawers and E. coli in meat drawers. 

Get it clean: Regularly remove the drawers and wash them with soap and warm water (running cold drawers under hot water may cause them to crack, so bring them to room temperature first). Avoid storing clean and unwashed produce together, and never store meats and produce in the same compartment.

3. Cutting boards

Food prep surfaces get a lot of use, which means a lot of potential for contamination. "There's more fecal bacteria on the average cutting board than a toilet seat in the average home in our studies," says Gerba.

Get it clean: The USDA recommends washing cutting boards in hot, soapy water after every use. Acrylic, plastic, glass, and solid (not laminated) wood boards can go through the dishwasher. They also recommend sanitizing wooden and plastic cutting boards with a solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach plus one gallon of water. Pour the solution over the surface of the cutting board and let it stand for several minutes. Rinse with water and air dry or dry with paper towels.

4. Blender

A lot of families (like mine) use the blender nearly every morning to make smoothies. But all those crevices, parts and pieces, and the fear of getting cut by the blade may get in the way of achieving a truly deep clean. 

Get it clean: Disassemble any removable parts before cleaning. If your blender is dishwasher-safe, go that route to be sure it's being thoroughly cleaned at a high temperature. Otherwise, fill the blender halfway with very hot water and a drop or two of dishwashing liquid, place the lid on, and blend for 10-20 seconds. Then rinse and dry.

5. Rubber spatulas

A 2013 NSF study found that rubber spatulas actually had a high rate of contamination with mold and even E. coli. Who would've thought? 

Get it clean: If your spatula is detachable from the handle, remove the top and wash both parts well in soap and hot water after each use.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of the forthcoming book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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