9 Tips for Preventing Food Poisoning

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iStock.com/skynesher

Thanksgiving is meant to be a time of gratitude and family togetherness, not upset stomachs, cramps, and diarrhea. But these and other symptoms of food poisoning can be caused by Salmonella, Norovirus, E. coli, and other pathogens that lurk in our food. Every year, about 1 in 6 Americans—48 million people—come down with food poisoning, according to the CDC. In order to prevent you from being one of them, here are some simple tips for reducing the risk of contracting a foodborne illness, because no one wants to spend Black Friday on the couch clutching the Pepto-Bismol. (If stomach symptoms do strike, here's our handy guide for how to tell if it's food poisoning or something else.)

1. To prevent food poisoning, keep your raw meat away from everything else.

It's easy for raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs to spread germs to foods you might not cook before eating, like greens or bread. That's why it's best to separate the raw animal products from everything else in your shopping cart and in your food prep area, including using different cutting boards or plates. You also want to separate those raw animal products in the fridge, and possibly keep them on the bottom shelf to avoid drips further down. When it comes to turkey, keep it on a tray or pan to catch any juices that might leak. That's an especially good idea this year, amid a salmonella outbreak involving 35 states.

2. Minimize germs by washing your hands and work area (with soap).

Pesky germs love to linger on hands, utensils, counters, and cutting surfaces. Before you start cooking, making sure everything is clean, and wash up throughly with soap and hot water. The CDC advises washing hands "for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food and before eating." In case you don't have a timer handy, that's the length of humming Happy Birthday twice.

3. Wash your produce too.

Produce is a common carrier of norovirus and E. coli, among other nasties. (Romaine lettuce seems especially vulnerable to the latter; as of November 2018, a new outbreak has the CDC warning people not to eat it at all). But you can reduce your risk somewhat by rinsing your fruits and vegetables in plain tap water. According to an expert USA Today spoke to, rinsing removes 90 percent of the pathogens food attracts during growing and shipping. The best method is to rub while rinsing, then dry with a (clean, obviously) towel. For food with hard skins or rinds, like potatoes, peeling is even more effective than rinsing.

The exception is bagged greens advertised as pre-washed: The bacteria in your kitchen is likely to mean that rinsing will do more harm than good.

However, don't rinse your meat or poultry—you'll probably just splash the bacteria around.

4. Thaw your meat correctly.

Don't buy your turkey until a day or two before you plan to cook it, then keep it frozen and in its original wrapper until ready to thaw it. (If your turkey is pre-stuffed, don't thaw it at all; cook from the package directions.) According to the USDA, there's only three safe ways to thaw: In the fridge, in cold water, or in a microwave. Keep in mind that larger birds can take a considerable amount of time to thaw in the refrigerator, so plan ahead accordingly. (The USDA has a handy timetable for how long birds of various sizes need to thaw.) If you're short on time, cold water is the best option. Figure 30 minutes for every pound of bird, and change the water every 30 minutes.

If properly thawed in the fridge, you can re-freeze your turkey if necessary, but don't refreeze if after using the other methods. And never thaw food by just leaving it to sit out on the counter—bacteria will start to multiple in a flash once parts of the grub reach room temperature.

5. Cook thoroughly.

It's important to get food hot enough, for long enough, that germs can be killed. When it's time to roast the turkey, you shouldn't be setting your oven temperature any lower than 325°F. Make sure the bird has been cooked through by using a food thermometer to check the thickest part of the breast and innermost part of the thigh or wing; the thermometer should read at least 165°F. The same temperature is good for any kind of whole poultry, breasts, or thighs, as well as ground chicken or turkey and casseroles. Stuffing, too. Fresh ham or fish can be a little cooler—145°F.

Keep in mind that an unstuffed 8-pound turkey will take anywhere from 1.5 to 3.25 hours to cook thoroughly, and an 8-12 pounder from 2.75 to 3 hours, so it's important to plan ahead. Don't assume you can check for doneness just by looking—even done meat can be pink.

And whatever you do, don't use an oral thermometer. Humans run at lower temps than roasted fowl, and regular oral thermometers can break in the high heat, adding glass and mercury to your entrees. Maybe not food poisoning, but not good.

6. Give your proteins a rest.

Resting can help meat juices to set and make carving easier. For some foods, particularly steak, fresh pork, or fresh ham, it can also help kill germs, as the temperatures remain at a constant or continue to rise. Other foods, like fish, don't need to rest at all.

7. Skip the stuffing. (Or bake it outside the bird.)

Sorry, Thanksgiving purists: Cooking stuffing inside a turkey isn't recommended—that bready mush is porous and thus perfect for soaking up salmonella-laden juices. According to author and TV personality Alton Brown, getting the stuffing to 165°F usually means overcooking the rest of the bird. "The way I see it, cooking stuffing inside a turkey turns the turkey into a rather costly seal-a-meal bag," he writes in his book Good Eats." If you're a stuffing fan, I suggest cooking it separately (in which case it's 'dressing,' not stuffing) and inserting it into the bird while it rests."

8. While you're at it, skip the oysters too.

Some foods are riskier than others when it comes to food poisoning. If it's raw or rare, especially if it's an animal product, chances are it has some unwanted baggage. Raw oysters, in particular, are breeding grounds for bacteria because they're filter feeders, which means they suck up a lot of viruses and bacteria. Cook all seafood to 145°F, and warm up any leftovers to 165°F.

9. Don't keep food hanging around.

Bacteria thrive between 40°F and 140°F—which means the average indoor house temperature is a perfect breeding zone. That's also why you don't want to leave food sitting out for more than two hours, and only one hour if it's above 90°F outside. Keep your fridge nice and cool, too—ideally below 40°F. And don't let leftovers linger even in the fridge—three or four days, max.

11 Secrets of Restaurant Servers

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iStock.com/andresr

If you enjoy eating at restaurants, it's worth getting to know the waitstaff. Servers are the face of the establishments where they work, and often the last people to handle your food before it reaches your table.

"People think it’s an easy job, and it’s really not," Alexis, a server who’s worked in the business for 30 years, tells Mental Floss. She says, jokingly, "You want a professional handling your food, because we have your life in our hands."

Even if they don't spit on your plate (which thankfully they almost never will), a waiter can shape your dining experience. We spoke with some seasoned professionals about how they deal with rude customers, what they wish more customers would do, and other secrets of the job.

1. Server pay varies greatly.

The minimum wage changes from state to state, but for tipped workers like servers, the difference in pay can be even more drastic depending on where you work. In over a dozen states, if a worker typically makes a certain amount per month in tips (often $20-$30), their employers are only required to pay them a minimum of $2.13 an hour. That’s how much Jeff, a video producer who’s held various jobs in the restaurant industry, made when serving tables in New Jersey. “Usually, if I had a full paycheck of serving I could just put a little bit of gas into the tank,” he tells Mental Floss.

Waiters and waitresses in many states rely almost entirely on tips to make a living—but that’s not the case everywhere. California, Oregon, and Washington each pay tipped employees minimum hourly wages over $10. Jon, who currently works at a casual fine dining restaurant in Portland, Oregon, gets $12 an hour from his employer. Including tips, he typically earns $230 a day before taxes, and brings home about $34,000 a year on a 25-hour work week.

2. They split up tips among the restaurant staff.

Here’s another reason to be generous with your tips: Whatever extra money you leave on the table may be going to more than one person. If you ordered a drink from the bar, or if there was anyone other than your server bringing your food and clearing it from the table, that tip will likely be split up. At one restaurant job, Jeff says he paid food expeditors (workers who run food from the kitchen to tables) 10 percent of whatever tips he earned.

3. Waiters and waitresses know how to handle rude customers.

In addition to taking orders and serving food, servers are often forced to de-escalate conflicts. For many people waiting tables, this means acting sweet and professional no matter how angry customers get. Jon’s strategy is to “treat them like a child, smile, tell them everything they want to hear and remind yourself that it’ll be over soon.” Similarly, Mike (not his real name), a server at a farm-to-table restaurant in Texas, likes to “kill them with kindness." He tells Mental Floss he tries to “be the bigger man and [not] return sour attitudes back to people who don’t treat me with respect. If nothing else I can hold my head high knowing I did my job to the best of my ability and didn’t let their negativity affect my day with other, more pleasant patrons.”

Alexis, who currently waits tables at a family-owned restaurant in California, goes beyond faking a smile and makes a point to practice empathy when serving rude guests. “There’s a hospital near my restaurant, and people come there for comfort food with hospital visitor stickers on their clothes all the time. And I know then that they’re going through something traumatic usually. So when people are acting badly, I put imaginary hospital stickers on their clothes and try to remove my ego.”

4. Your waiter (probably) won’t spit in your food.

While most servers have had to deal with a customer who treats them poorly, they rarely retaliate. On the old urban legend of servers spitting in their customer’s food, Alexis says, “Never seen anybody mess with anybody’s food out of spite or malicious intent. I’ve never seen it happen and I’ve never actually done it. I don’t need to get back at people like that.”

5. Servers do more than wait tables.

Most customers just see one aspect of a server's jobs. When they’re not refilling your drinks and bringing you condiments, they're doing side work—either before the restaurant opens, after the last guest leaves, or in between waiting tables. “It could be rolling silverware, filling sauces, cutting lemons, rotating salad bars, stuff like that,” Jeff says. “It’s not just serving and you leave; there’s usually something else behind the scenes that the server has to do.”

Alexis says that in addition to hosting and serving, she has to prep to-go orders, bus tables, and wash dishes. "We’re expected to be working every moment,” she says.

6. Waiters have some wild stories.

Though parts of the job are tedious, servers are bound to see interesting things. Alexis recalls a husband and wife who were regulars at the restaurant where she worked in the 1990s; the man was later arrested for murder. “I found out when a newspaper reporter started asking me questions about them,” she says. “I’m quoted on the front page of the LA Times as saying ‘A waitress in a local coffee shop said they were a nightmare!’”

Other stories are lighter. “When I worked at Red Robin there was a lady that came in every morning and would ask to sit in the same booth," Jon says. "She carried a bag [of] stuffed animals (mostly dragons) and situated them around the booth, always in the same spots, she’d talk to them throughout her dining experience.”

7. Waiters hate it when you don't know what you want.

The simplest way to get on your server’s good side is to know exactly what you want when you tell them you're ready to order. That means not wasting their time stalling as you speed-read the menu. If you haven't decided on a dish, let your server know and trust that they'll return to your table in a few minutes. “Don’t tell your server you’re ready to order if you’re not ready to order,” Alexis says. “I’m like ‘Come on, I know you’re not ready. I’m going someplace else and I’ll be back.’”

It also means not asking your server to make several trips to your table in the span of a few minutes. Mike says that customers asking for items one at a time is one of his biggest pet peeves. “[Customers will say] ‘I need salt. I need hot sauce. I need another [...] drink.’ I was away from the table for 30 seconds each time. Those requests could easily be fulfilled in one trip to the kitchen.”

8. Waiters hate when you ask to move tables.

Next time you get seated in a restaurant, think twice before asking your server to switch tables. Restaurants divide their floor plan into sections, and each server is responsible for a different group of tables. The hosts in charge of seating rotate these sections to distribute guests evenly to servers; by asking to move, you may be depriving one server of an hour’s worth of tips while creating extra work for a server who’s already swamped. According Jon, the worst time to complain about where you were seated is when a restaurant is busy: “Sometimes this isn’t a problem if we’re slow, but if it’s a Friday/Saturday chances are you were put there for a reason.”

9. Servers work when everyone else gets the day off.

Servers have to be prepared to work a different schedule every week, work late into the night, and work on weekends. This can make maintaining a normal social life challenging. “My schedule can be troublesome, my girlfriend/friends have the opposite schedule as me so I’m never able to make it out on weekends or holidays,” Jon says.

And on the days many 9-to-5 workers go out to celebrate, servers have to wait on them. “Where I currently work I have worked Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, New Years Day, and I will have to work on Mardi Gras (in the South),” Mike says. “I was leaving for work as my family arrived at my house for Christmas. I missed a New Years party in my house. If I hadn’t requested if off as soon as I began working there I’m almost certain I’d have to work 15 [hours] on my birthday.”

10. Your server might give you a free drink if you order it at the right time.

Asking your server for a free stuff likely won’t get you anywhere, but there is one thing you can do to possibly have a drink taken off your bill. If you wait until after your meal is served to order something cheap like a soft drink, Alexis says there’s a chance you won’t get charged for it all. “Not alcoholic drinks, but I’m talking about a cup of coffee or a soda or something like that, especially if you’re already paying for other beverages,” she says. “The server might get too busy or might not be inclined to go back to the POS [point of sale] system and add them on to your bill. It’s more trouble than it’s worth sometimes.”

11. Waiters want you to learn their names.

There’s a reason most servers introduce themselves before taking your order: They’d much rather you use their real names than a demeaning nickname. “Don’t call me sweetheart! I’m wearing a damn name tag,” Alexis says. “Sometimes I respond well, and other times no.”

And if your server doesn’t introduce themselves and isn’t wearing a name tag, Jon says it doesn’t hurt to ask. “Ask what the servers name is and refer them by name when you’re talking to them.” He says it’s “refreshing when a guest does this.”

15 Tasty Bits of Pizza Slang

iStock.com/Radionphoto
iStock.com/Radionphoto

Unless you’ve worked in a pizzeria, your pizza vocabulary is probably limited. But the crust-loving pros who are cooking up your favorite slices seem to have insider slang for everything, including whimsical terms for toppings and one-of-a-kind ways of describing regional pie styles. So if you’re looking up your pizza-talk game with words that go beyond ‘za, here’s a quick list of 15 terms you should know.

1. Tip sag

The dreaded tip sag is what you get when the pointy end of your pizza starts to droop. This most often occurs with top-heavy (and topping-heavy) pies, like Neapolitan-style pizzas with generous helpings of fresh mozzarella piled on top.

2. Avalanche

An avalanche is what occurs when all the toppings slide off your pizza as soon as you pick it up. This tends to happen when a pizza is still piping hot from the oven, so be smart and give it a minute to cool down.

3. Apizza

If you ever travel to New Haven, Connecticut, you might hear the locals order apizza (pronounced uh-BEETS). This refers to the local style of thin-crust pizza, which originated at the famous Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and has since become the area's pizza standard.

4. Grandma pie

This style of pizza is thick like a Sicilian pie, but with a thinner, denser crust. Although it likely originated in Long Island, you can now find it in pizzerias throughout New York City (and beyond).

5. Party-cut

Man delivers several pizzas to a customer
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Also known as a tavern-cut, a party-cut describes any circular pizza that’s cut into a grid. The portions are smaller and typically square, which helps ensure that everyone at your Super Bowl party will get a piece of the pie.

6. All-dressed pizza

Order an all-dressed pizza in Montreal and you’ll get a deluxe pie with mushrooms, green peppers, and pepperoni on it. In Québec, it's known as a pizza tout garnie.

7. Flyers

Slices of pepperoni pizza are called flyers, reportedly because of the way they’re often tossed around like Frisbees.

8. Guppies

Depending on your perspective, guppies is either a really cute or really gross way to describe anchovies. Other slang words for the fishy topping include chovies, carp, penguin food, and smellies.

9. Alpo

It’s not very appetizing, but crumbled sausage does kind of resemble dog food—hence the Alpo moniker. Other nicknames for the topping include Kibbles ‘n Bits and Puppy Chow, neither of which make the topping sound any more appetizing.

10. Screamers

Woman preparing a mushroom pizza at home
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Mushrooms are sometimes called screamers because of the high-pitched squeal the canned variety lets out when they’re tossed onto a hot surface.

11. Edgar Allan

What does a pizza with pepperoni and onions spell out? A PO pie—which is close enough in spelling to Edgar Allan Poe's last name that it gets tossed around in pizza kitchens on occasion. Sure, P-O or Po would be easier (and quicker) to say, but it’s not nearly as fun.

12. Blood pie

Also known as a hemorrhage, this gruesome term refers to a pizza with extra tomato sauce on it. Now please forget that we ever told you that.

13. Coastline

The coastline is that little bit of exposed sauce you can see between the sauce and the crust.

14. Mutz

A margherita pizza fresh from the oven
iStock.com/svariophoto

Mutz is simply a quicker way of saying mozzarella. Likewise, wet mutz is fresh mozzarella.

15. Roadie

When you get a slice of pizza to-go, that’s a roadie. Enjoy it while it's still hot (but not so hot as to cause an avalanche)! 

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