The trash is overflowing, the garbage disposal smells like the inside of a dirty sock and the sponges lining your sink are so full of bacteria that any second they may stand up and start crawling away. Is it a big deal? Will that rivulet of grease developing on your range hood topple your careful plans to create a comfortable, safe home for your family? Well, yes.
Keeping your kitchen (and other parts of your home) clean is important for a number of reasons we'll get to in a second. If you aren't worried about the biology, think economy instead. Cleanliness can save you money. It's also politically and socially correct. We have 10 reasons you should take an hour a week, or less than 10 minutes a day to keep your kitchen tidy. We aren't advocating a frontal assault on all things disorganized, jumbled or in need of a friendly wipe-down. A few crumbs in front of the toaster are nothing to get obsessive about. We want to root out dirty or neglectful kitchen habits that can make you sick, cost you money and time, or send a negative message to your kids.
You may think all those cereal boxes cluttering your kitchen countertops and the dishes you use directly from the dishwasher instead of putting them away first are a compromise move that you'll get a handle on when life is less hectic. The fact is that whatever you're doing -- or not doing -- is making an impression on your children. They won't love you any less if you never clean out the ice dispenser tray, but they may adopt your less desirable cleaning habits later in life. Cleanliness may not have the almost religious importance previous generations of housekeepers attributed to it, but it's a good habit to teach your children by example.
Have you ever noticed that letting one potato in the bag go moldy makes the rest rot faster, or that leaving a head of lettuce to liquefy in the crisper seems to have an adverse effect on all the other veggies in the drawer (not to mention your enthusiasm for eating them)? Taking a proactive approach to food maintenance will help you reduce spoilage and have more confidence in the leftovers you have in your fridge. Discard spoiling food immediately. Keep vegetables like potatoes and onions separated to prevent naturally occurring ethylene gas from turning them too quickly. Reduce the risk of encouraging bacterial growth by keeping your sink, refrigerator, cutting boards and stovetop clean. Americans waste a staggering 30 percent of the food they buy every year. Taking the time to tidy up will make it easier to reduce that figure and save some green at your house.
It's dinnertime and you're exhausted. This morning's dishes are on the counter where you plan to chop onions, and the sink is full of salad debris that never made it into the disposal. In order to get a meal together, you'll have to clean out the kitchen first. While you're cursing whoever left the sponge full of pasta sauce, you're thinking of ways to cut a few seconds from dinner prep so you can get off your aching feet.
If this sounds familiar, you'll probably acknowledge that cleaning when you're tired or in a hurry isn't good cleaning. If you're plagued by sticky countertop residue, raise your hand. Hasty cleaning probably takes more time in the long run, too. One good countertop cleaning -- you know, the kind where you take everything off the counter and do the job right -- may take 10 minutes. Having to drag a rag around your countertop appliances, the mail basket and the bread box twice a day for a hurried cleaning could pile up a lot more minutes by week's end. If you get into the habit of cleaning regularly, you'll save a few steps and keep your frustration meter out of the red zone.
Cleanliness isn't just an aesthetic concern. It's about safety, too. Drips on the floor from yesterday's margarita disaster could cause someone to take a tumble, and that oil slick on the stove from taco night may start a grease fire. The kitchen is one spot where water, high heat, electricity and sharp objects all come into close proximity, and the best way to control this potentially dangerous environment is by keeping it clean and organized. No one plans on starting a kitchen fire, slipping on dribbled maple syrup or dropping the blade end of a greasy knife on a toe. Keeping the kitchen clean may help you forestall calamity so you're never the guy who has to spend a day at the emergency room because of a silly kitchen accident.
Kitchens are all about food storage and preparation, and having an effective and consistent food maintenance strategy is a good idea. Foods like milk turn relatively quickly, and keeping your fridge clean and organized will help you keep track of food stores so you can use them before they spoil. When the inside of your refrigerator looks like it might be ripe for a visit from the health department, don't expect to be able to monitor or control what goes on in there. Decaying food will produce odors and sometimes bacteria that can escalate the decline of other foods, and when you leave spills in place, you risk creating problems with cross-contamination.
The cupboard is another spot to keep an eye on. Although canned foods may be relatively indestructible, baking powder, spices, nuts and other products should be monitored. If you know the freshness date on that loaf of whole wheat bread is about to elapse, you may be able to turn it into breadcrumbs before it turns green and fuzzy. While you're checking around, keep a look out for insect activity and vacuum up any flour or other food crumbs or dust. Spilled, spoiling and neglected food can breed legions of bacteria and encourage insect invaders. If you're waiting for the next holiday to mount a cleaning campaign, your bread may go moldy and a thriving community of weevils could move into your flour, dried pasta and other packaged foods in the meantime. Food is perishable, and using it to its best advantage requires regular cleaning and maintenance.
The kitchen is appliance central in most homes, and we aren't just talking about the big stuff. Your garbage disposal, range hood, dishwasher, toaster, coffeemaker, food processor and other appliances will all work more efficiently when they're clean. Efficiency means longer life. When a vent or filter is dirty, an appliance has to work harder to do its job. It will usually work hotter, too. That means a shorter useful life for that electric knife or electric potato peeler than if you'd kept it clean. Will a little dust or grease destroy all of your countertop gadgets? No, but the effects are cumulative, and prolonged neglect will do more than make your appliances a little sticky and unsightly.
You may prefer the idea of having the kitchen all to yourself when you're having company over, but folks usually like to gravitate to the kitchen to see what's going on. It's the place where all the action is. Don't be surprised if your tidy living room is empty and your guests are laughing and having a great time standing within a couple of feet of the garbage bag you just filled with corn husks. Life is so unfair, but the fact is that the kitchen is the heart of the home. Sadly, it can also be the dirtiest room in your house. Before your sister-in-law starts telling the story of the day she opened your refrigerator and discovered a block of cheese covered with inch-thick mold, expect the unexpected by getting your kitchen in shape and keeping it that way.
When things get really dirty, it's easy to think you have to bring in the heavy artillery. Cleaning agents used in kitchens and bathrooms kill germs because they consist of a string of strong chemicals that get the job done, but can also leave residue behind.
Humans aren't immune to the biological effects of strong anti-bacterial agents, and keeping your home clean using safe practices can be challenging. One thing is certain, though. Maintaining a regular cleaning regimen keeps bacteria under control, so there's less of it to deal with. The chemicals you use, whether you decide to go green or employ a more aggressive, powerful option, will be available in reduced concentrations at any given time. If you've ever spent a weekend of heavy-duty cleaning only to have your home smell like you're preparing a chemical stew, you know what we mean.
We love the idea of cleaning with wholesome products like white vinegar, a mild but effective acid, and baking soda, a mild abrasive. Whether you go this route or not, a little regular cleaning will create lower concentrations of harsh chemicals and less opportunity for dangerous exposure than a quarterly cleaning marathon.
Dirt, dust and grime build-up can be expensive, especially in your kitchen. Your refrigerator is a prime example. When the condenser coils behind or under your refrigerator get dirty, the compressor runs longer and hotter. This can have some surprising repercussions. It's easy to see that you'll use more energy when your refrigerator is cycling on more often, but it'll also be making your kitchen hotter. If it's summer, that means your air conditioner will need to run longer to process all that hot air. It's a double whammy. Oh, and because your fridge is working inefficiently, the compressor may burn out faster, too.
The refrigerator door gasket is another place where cleanliness matters. When the gasket is clean, it makes a good seal between the door and the cold box. When the gasket is dirty, it allows a little warm air to leak in, forcing the refrigerator to work harder to maintain its interior temperature. This uses energy and puts your food (especially items stored on the door) at risk. It also shortens the life of what's probably the most expensive appliance in your home.
Let's move to the stove. If you have stovetop reflectors under your electric burners, they're there for more than decoration. They actually help to reflect the heat from the element back up to your pot or pan. When they're dirty, they don't do the job as well, so it takes additional energy (and time) to cook food on your stovetop. There's more. Your oven is a marvel of design; it isn't just a big box that warms up when you turn a nob. The interior sides and bottom are actually designed to reflect heat onto your food. When your oven is covered in baked on gunk, it uses more energy and cooks food less evenly. In essence, you'll be paying more to prepare a roast that's overcooked -- but only on one side.
One of the biggest concerns about cleanliness in the kitchen is foodborne illness due to spoilage or cross-contamination. You know about safety precautions like using different cutting boards for meat and vegetables, always washing your hands after handling raw meats and cleaning the sink and countertops regularly. These are just the basics.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that every year, there are about 76 million cases of food borne illness in the United States. This is contamination from all sources, including food manufacturing, but that figure is still shocking.
Some of the biggest culprits introduced in food are: Salmonella, Campylobacter, pathogenic E coli and Listeria. There are others that can be transmitted to food from unwitting human carriers and then distributed to others in the household. They include: hepatitis A virus, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, Shigella sonnei and rotavirus. Although foodborne illnesses are much more likely to present severe health risks to young children, older adults and those who are already ill, even a mild case of food poisoning is an experience to avoid.
Here are a few chores to consider adding to your kitchen routine to reduce the risk of foodborne illness:
- Always wash your hands before and after handling perishable foods.
- Wash cutting boards in hot, soapy water every time you use them. Discard cutting boards with deep scoring or gouges.
- Wash your hands after touching your nose, mouth or eyes.
- Wash your hands after handling raw meat or eggs.
- Keep household cleaners away from food prep areas.
- Don't forget to clean all the gadgets you use for food prep like: meat thermometers, measuring cups, measuring spoons, can openers, sieves, colanders, blenders, wooden spoons, cookie sheets and spoon rests. If it touches perishable foods, it should be cleaned.
- Dispose of spoiled food promptly. Never keep leftovers in your refrigerator longer than four days.
- Refrigerate perishable foods after no more than two hours at room temperature.
- If a food item looks or smells off in any way, pitch it.
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