Teenagers are a unique breed of individuals with the capacity to almost simultaneously be charming, lazy, loving, innovative, confusing, dynamic, frustrating, and hopelessly naïve. This same naiveté extends to the area of how important it is to treat food right. Teens are experts at consuming food, as evidenced by an ever-empty fridge and perhaps the pantry as well. I know of what I speak: when my girls were that age, I could attest to the real possibility of poltergeists, aliens, or leprechauns taking the food that I had just stocked. Just who pilfered my hidden mint chocolate Milano cookies? Alas, that is fodder for another story…
In all seriousness, teenagers are well-known to scoff at the advice of adults, especially parents. And especially when it is a “clean” or “cleanliness” practice. Yet by the same token, there are occasions when we truly do know what is right and how to protect them from potential harm. Food pathogens are real, and most unfortunately, are proliferating recently. Protecting your teen now will help keep them a healthy adult later.
Teens and Their Bad Habits
In a recent study conducted at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, 32 food-handling procedures were measured across students in grades 10 – 12. Not surprisingly, results found that fewer than 50 percent of these students followed these same practices, including not washing their hands and taking care to avoid cross-contamination of food products. According to researcher Ken Diplock of the study, “High school students represent the next generation of food handlers, but they are not well studied. They are just starting to prepare food on their own and for others, and they’re also beginning to work in the food industry.”
The students in the study were observed three times during their food and nutrition classes, and the most significant improvement came after the students were administered food-handling procedures. Even though improvement in their food handling practices was observed two weeks and then three months later, students continued to engage in “risky behaviors” regarding food safety. Food safety education is certainly worthwhile; however, if the positive behaviors are not reinforced consistently, teens are likely to become lax about them.
Additionally, the construction and delivery of this study offered some valid points as to the overall importance of food safety education with this population of high school students. Some of the more salient talking points are as follows:
- Food safety education is an employment advantage: Many high schoolers find themselves in first-time employment in the food industry. If they become a certified food handler, they may be a more valuable potential employee in the food industry. Essentially, those with certification would have a “foot in the door” when it comes to employment.
- Teens are “food illiterate”: High school students are not food literate: they do not have the food skills to choose and prepare healthy and safe meals. As one student participant put it, “Where not only do we not know how to cook properly, but when we do finally cook…if it’s not reheated in the microwave, we’re not sure exactly what to do with it.”
- Lack of good food-handling models: Family dynamics and practices have changed: there is less passing down of “traditional” cooking skills. Families eat out and use their microwaves more. And there’s bad advice out there, e.g. it’s ok to leave the meat to thaw on the counter.
- Teens are preparing to live on their own after graduation: One teen participant perhaps put it most succinctly, “I think it should be offered absolutely, probably, cooking skills, and budget skills, and other, you know, life skills… doing your taxes – you know, a whole bunch of things that you’re not really taught from an academic stand point.”
- Teens engage in risky behaviors: High school students engage in riskier behaviors, because they just don’t think “it can happen to me.”
- Teens eat lots of convenience and/or pre-packaged meals: High school students see a convenience meal (my kids personally loved Pizza Rolls) and rejoice. However, these same meals, marketed to youth, are convenient for them to prepare. These meals often contain specific preparation directions (e.g., cook, reheat, refrigerate immediately) that need to be followed to keep the food safe.
Follow the “Food Safety Four”
The sooner your teens learn these proactive practices (and by the way, prevention is always key), the sooner they will incorporate them into their daily routines and substantially reduce the chance they will contract a foodborne illness.
- Wash hands and food preparation surfaces often.
- Separate raw meat, poultry, and egg products from cooked foods to avoid cross-contamination.
- Raw meat, poultry, and egg products need to be cooked thoroughly. Use a food thermometer to ensure that foods have reached a high enough internal temperature to kill any harmful bacteria
- Refrigerate food promptly.
Teens are in a transitional state of proper food safety education. Elementary school-age children and middle schoolers learn how to help prepare meals and snacks, and college age students are expected to prepare their own meals, or at least how to store them properly. Although most experts would agree that best practices in food safety should be taught at school, many nutrition and cooking classes are electives for high schoolers. That leaves the task of consistent teaching and application to parents who may feel that they need to pick and choose battles with their teens. I also realize that no parent wants to feel as if they have to monitor their teen’s hygiene practices: they should be well-versed in hand washing procedures. But perhaps food safety needs to begin even earlier…..when that teen is a child. Little kids almost always love to help in the kitchen. Have them watch you safely prepare and cook a meal, or several. Have them scrub the produce and wash down the utensils and counters. Have them help disinfect the refrigerator and the sink. As with anything important that you wish to impart to your children, plant the seed early and it will take root!
By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Author (Non-lawyer)