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Kitchens: Clean and green?


Cleaning a kitchen in an early childhood program presents a dilemma: How do we zap germs that cause illness, and how do we do it without chemically harming the kids?

We’re justifiably alarmed at every news report about food-borne illness. Illnesses from poor sanitary practices and contaminated food pose a greater risk for preschool children than for older children and adults because of their immature immune systems and smaller size.

At the same time, we are warned against the use of cleaning and sanitizing chemicals that pose a threat when inhaled, ingested, or touched.

Solving the dilemma is not easy. But when we know how to clean properly, handle food safely, select cleaning products wisely, and use them carefully, we can end up with a kitchen that’s clean and (mostly) green.


Clean and sanitize properly
Perhaps the single most important principle for preventing illness is hand washing. Children, teachers, cooks, and anyone else involved in meals and snacks must wash their hands before eating (or feeding a child) as well as before and after handling food, dishes, and eating utensils.

Texas standards (Texas Department of Family and Protective Services 2010, Sec. 746.3415) require that employees also wash their hands:
after arriving at the child care center
before giving medication
after handling body fluids such as wiping noses or mouths or tending sores
after diapering a child or assisting a child with
after personal toileting
after handling or feeding animals
after outdoor activities
after using any cleaning or toxic materials.

The method: Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. Rinse and wipe dry with a clean cloth towel or disposable paper towel. Note that antibacterial or antimicrobial cleaners are not necessary. Ordinary soap or detergent will rid the hands of germs that cause illness.

Avoid soaps, toothpaste, and other products that contain triclosan, an antibacterial found in hundreds of household products. Animal studies indicate the compound disrupts hormones and contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, which has prompted the FDA to reassess its effects on human health (Conley 2011).

What’s good for hands is also good for nearly everything else in food areas. But in addition to first cleaning with soap and water, you will need a further step of sanitizing certain items.

Sanitizing is different than disinfecting. Sanitizing is used in food and play areas (for infant toys and pacifiers), while disinfecting is for restrooms. (For more on cleaning restrooms, see the summer 2012 issue.)

Food area items that require cleaning and sanitizing, as recommended by state standards and national authorities (National Association for the Education of Young Children 2012; National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education 2011) are the following:
food preparation surfaces and countertops
food preparation appliances
eating utensils and dishes
highchair trays and tables used for eating

Although cleaning and sanitizing the kitchen is typically the cook’s job, the director is responsible for a facility’s overall cleanliness, which includes monitoring cleaning and sanitizing procedures. Teachers are responsible for helping children wash their hands before meals and snacks, and infant caregivers typically clean and sanitize highchair trays or other eating surfaces before and after use.


Choosing a sanitizing solution
The choice of sanitizing solution depends upon many factors: the level of germ-killing needed, approval by health and licensing authorities, and the school’s budget, to name a few.

The sanitizer that many child care facilities and schools continue to choose because of its effectiveness and low cost is a diluted bleach solution. The bleach is the regular household variety, and the solution must be mixed fresh every day.

Bleach can be hazardous, however. Inhaling the fumes can irritate the lungs and contribute to asthma, and touching it can irritate the skin. When preparing and applying, follow these precautions:
Use only the recommended amount—one tablespoon per gallon of water or one teaspoon per quart of water.
Wear gloves and protective eye wear when mixing.
Use a funnel to add bleach to the water.
Make sure the room is well-ventilated when mixing and applying.
Apply the solution when children are not present.
Allow sprayed surfaces to air dry completely, or wipe dry after the time recommended on the label (usually two minutes).
Never mix or store bleach with ammonia or any acid, including vinegar. Mixing the bleach with these substances can create a toxic chlorine gas.

Commercial antimicrobial products used in hospitals and nursing homes are effective alternatives but may pose worse hazards than bleach. The active ingredients may include quarternary ammonium, which has been associated with asthma, and phenol, a recognized carcinogen (Rose and Westinghouse 2010).

In recent years, green alternatives have come on the market that destroy a broad range of germs including H1N1 and MRSA but without harmful effects to humans and the environment. One alternative is accelerated hydrogen peroxide, which biodegrades into hydrogen and oxygen, and botanicals, such as Benefect® whose main germ-killing ingredient is thymol, an oil extracted from thyme (Rose and Westinghouse 2010).

Whatever the choice, keep in mind the goal: to reduce the use of chemicals where children work and play. Read the product label and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Avoid cleaners labeled “Danger” or “Poison.” They pose the highest hazard to humans and the environment. Cleaners with the “Warning” label present a lower hazard, and those with “Caution,” the lowest level of concern.

Apart from commercial products, many cleaners can be made from common household products such as vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda. These natural cleaners are touted on the Internet and in books like Planet Home (2010) as green alternatives. While these cleaners may perform well in removing dirt and grease, their efficacy as sanitizers may be limited (Rutala et al 2000). More research is needed.


Before cooking
Cleaning the kitchen, unlike other rooms, is not solely an end-of-the-day job. It begins in the morning before cooking and continues during the day.

1. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water. Kitchen staff should make hand washing a habit that they perform upon entering the kitchen and before getting out food and utensils.

2. Prepare food on cleaned and sanitized surfaces. Ideally, food preparation surfaces, such as cutting boards and countertops, have been cleaned and sanitized after cooking the previous day. If you’re uncertain about the timing of the last cleaning or if the surfaces have been used for other purposes (holding bags of groceries, counting money, or scraping mud off sneakers, for example), clean and sanitize them before cooking.


Prepare food safely
Texas standards (Sec. 746.3317) require that the food preparation area be separate from eating, play, diapering, and toileting areas. In addition, the food preparation area must not serve as a passageway to other areas while food is being prepared.

The standards also require that anyone who handles food be free from illness, open wounds, or any bandaged injury that would hamper proper hand washing.

The website,, managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides a gateway to information from several agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The site offers news about food recalls, a monthly electronic journal of food safety news, information about food poisoning, and guidelines for preparing food safely.

Food preparation guidelines include the following:
Thoroughly wash all produce before cutting, cooking, or eating. Scrub firm vegetables such as squash with a vegetable brush under running water, even if you plan to peel them. Don’t use soap or detergent.
Avoid recipes that call for raw or partially cooked eggs (such as homemade ice cream). Do not allow children to eat raw cookie dough made with eggs because of the risk of Salmonella contamination.
When cooking fried or scrambled eggs, cook until the yolk and white are firm, not runny.
Thaw frozen meats and fish in the refrigerator or the microwave. Or place them in a water-tight plastic bag and submerge in a pan of cold water. Never thaw meat by placing it on the counter at room temperature and letting it stand for several hours. Germs can flourish in warm, moist environments.
Keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and their juices away from other foods during preparation and storage. After handling raw meat, wash hands before handling other food.
Reserve at least one cutting board and knife for meats and fish, and use separate ones for vegetables and fruits. Use separate platters or bowls for uncooked and cooked meats. After grilling chicken breasts, for example, place the grilled meat on a clean platter, not back on the cutting board with the raw chicken.
Cook meats according to the following internal temperatures, as measured with a food thermometer. Allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before serving. Cooking at these temperatures kills harmful bacteria such as E.coli.

> poultry - 165 degrees

> ground meats - 160 degrees

> steaks, chops, and roasts - 145 degrees.
Use a clean spoon each time you taste a food during cooking. The tasting spoon should be different than the stirring spoon.


Sanitary food serving tips
Serving meals family style provides many learning opportunities for children. In addition to enhancing language skills in conversation, adults can help children learn table manners and sanitary eating practices.
Serve food on a table or other flat, sturdy surface. Cover the table with butcher paper or a washable tablecloth. Do not serve food on a rug or the floor.
Use plates, napkins, and utensils that can be cleaned and sanitized (or disposed of) after use.
Help children use serving spoons (not their bare hands or personal utensils) to move food from serving dishes to their plates.
When serving, don’t touch your face or other parts of your body or children’s bodies.
Supervise children to avoid cross-contamination of food. Teach children to eat with their own utensils and drink from their own cups, for example.
Keep tissues at hand. Teach children to use tissues, not their napkins, for blowing and wiping their noses, and discard the used tissues immediately in a wastebasket.
Remove leftover food promptly from the table after children and adults have finished eating.


Cleaning up after meals
It’s a good idea to wash dirty dishes soon after meals. Leaving them in the sink for long periods attracts insets and makes dishes harder to clean.
1. Wash hands and put on vinyl gloves.
2. Place leftovers in containers that are shallow to speed cooling or freezing. A rule of thumb for refrigerating cooked leftovers is four days. For a handy chart on how long to safely refrigerate and freeze leftovers and other foods, see
3. Rinse washable plates and utensils under running water to remove food scraps. Place plates and utensils in the dishwasher. According to Texas standards (Sec. 746.3413), using an automated dishwasher that reaches a temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes or more kills most germs and eliminates the need for spraying these items with sanitizing solution.
Another option is to use disposable, single-use items such as paper plates and plastic spoons and forks. Remember, however, that these items end up in landfills, which can pollute air and groundwater.
4. Fill a dishpan with hot, soapy water and scrub cutting boards, wood items, plastics, and pots and pans. Spray or swab sanitizing solution on cutting boards, knives, and other items used in preparing meats.
5. Use soapy water to wash countertops, stovetop, microwave interior, and any surface touched by hands such as refrigerator and oven handles, stove knobs, drawer pulls, cabinet door handles, water faucets, and telephone. Spray with sanitizing solution and let air dry.
6. Clean and sanitize tabletops, highchair trays, and food preparation appliances, such as blenders and food processors.
7. Sweep the floor and clean up any spills.
8. Remove the plastic liner from the trash can, tie securely, and place it in the outdoor bin. If something has leaked into the can, wash it out before inserting another plastic liner. Wash hands after emptying the garbage. Make sure the outdoor bin or dumpster is emptied regularly.
9. If you have any grease or fat left from cooking, pour it into a metal can, let it harden or freeze, and place it in the garbage. Pouring it into the sink can clog the drain.
10. Empty fruit and vegetable cuttings into the outdoor compost bin, if you have one.
11. Launder cloth towels and pot holders as well as cloth napkins, bibs, and tablecloths after each use. Don’t leave wet and dirty dish rags lying around because bacteria thrive in them. Sponges are not recommended because they are hard to sanitize.


Additional cleaning and periodic checks
Apart from daily cleanup, parts of the kitchen will need additional attention every week or so. Some examples:


Mop with warm, soapy water. Rinse and let dry. Because a wet, slippery floor poses a fall hazard, this chore is best done after everyone has gone home.


About once a month, pull everything out and clean the interior, especially the vegetable and meat bins, with warm, soapy water. Throw out any spoiled or moldy food. If an odor remains, set a cup containing a few tablespoons of baking soda on a refrigerator shelf.
Clean the refrigerator door seal to remove mold spots and bacterial growth that have collected because of condensation.
Check to make sure the temperature of the refrigerator stays at 40 degrees or below and the freezer at zero degrees.


Wash the stove hood or vent with warm, soapy water. Oil from cooking may collect there and collect dust. If it’s really greasy, spray with vinegar or lemon juice mixed in water and wipe clean.
Use the self-cleaning function to burn away spills in the oven, and wipe clean when the oven cools. For older ovens, sprinkle spills with baking soda and water, let stand overnight, and wipe out in the morning. Don’t use commercial oven cleaners because they contain highly toxic lye.


Wash and dry pantry shelves. Ideally they are made of aluminum so they can be washed. If shelves are made of wood, cover them with non-adhesive shelf liners that can be removed, washed, and hung to dry.
Store flour, sugar, pasta, and other dry goods in plastic or glass containers with tight-fitting lids to keep out pests. Store on shelves, not on the floor.
Check canned goods periodically, and discard any that have passed the expiration date or are dented, leaking, bulging, or rusted. In general, high-acid canned food such as tomato and pineapple can be stored in the pantry for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid canned foods will keep two years or more if stored in a cool, clean, and dry place and the can remains in good condition.
Store food in places apart from cleaning supplies and other potentially toxic materials.


Cleaning closet
Keep towels, brooms, mops, and other cleaning tools used in the kitchen separate from those used for cleaning restrooms.


Keep out pests
Poor sanitary practices in kitchens can attract cockroaches, flies, and other pests that can trigger asthma attacks and spread disease. Because children are sensitive to pesticides, the EPA recommends that schools and child care facilities use Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a common-sense and economical approach that starts with removing the conditions that allow pests to thrive.
Seal cracks and holes along baseboards, around sinks and pipes, and around windows. Repair holes in doors and screens as well as leaks in faucets and appliances.
Eliminate clutter such as paper bags, newspaper, and cardboard boxes, all of which cockroaches like to eat.
When you have a pest infestation, identify the point of entry and food and water sources. Use a spot treatment rather than a wide-area application, and treat the area when children are not present.

To download food safety training materials for staff, see “Fight BAC! Goes to Child Care,” at
For a directory of asthma-safe sanitizers and disinfectants, visit the website of the nonprofit Green Schools Initiatives,
For more information about food-borne illness and prevention, see
For information about safe and sanitary handling of baby food, formula, and breast milk, see
For information on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), see
For more information on green practices in food service and sanitation, see


Conley, Mikaela. Aug. 24, 2011. “Triclosan Under Review by the FDA,” ABC News,
Hollender, Jeffrey. 2010. Planet Home: Conscious Choices for Cleaning and Greening the World You Care About Most. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. 2012. “Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting Frequency Table.”
National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. 2011. Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards, 3rd Ed. Appendix J: Selecting an Appropriate Sanitizer or Disinfectant.
Rose, Lynn and Carol Westinghouse. 2010. Cleaning for Healthier Schools: Infection Control Handbook,
Rutala, W.A.; S.L. Barbee; N.C. Aquiar; M.D. Sobser; and D.J. Weber. 2000. Antimicrobial activity of home disinfectants and natural products against potential human pathogens. Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, 21 (1): 33-8.
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. 2010. Minimum Standards for Child Care Centers, Sections 746.3415, 746.3317, and 746.3413.