A guide to handling food safely, from the market to the table

A few simple habits in the kitchen can help you avoid food poisoning at home.

There's a lot of entertaining on the agenda this time of year, so there's never been a better time to brush up on food hygiene rules. It's all too easy to forget about safe food preparation, but food poisoning can be unpleasant and even fatal, so don't take any risks. Stay safe with our quick guide.

Get the basics right

When you're cooking, it's important that you don't introduce germs or foreign bodies into the food yourself, so personal hygiene is crucial, even if you're in a rush.

Wash your hands with warm soapy water, tie long hair up, remove watches and all jewellery and cover cuts or wounds with blue sticking plasters. Cover your clothes with a clean apron, roll up your sleeves before you cook and never lick a spoon then place it back into the food.

It's equally important that your kitchen is clean before you start to cook. Make sure that utensils and pans are clean and dry. Disinfect the sink, floor, cooker and bin, and wipe all work surfaces with an antibacterial spray and a clean cloth.

Allocate chopping boards

Instead of having one chopping board that you rinse and reuse frequently as you cook, you should have four different boards - one for each food group - to avoid cross-contamination.

Traditionally, a red board is used for raw meat, a green board for fruit, vegetables and salad, a blue board for raw fish and a white board for cooked foods and dairy items. Joseph Joseph sells a smart set of colour-coded dishwasher-safe polypropylene chopping boards that come in a holder so you can easily store them on your worktop, $38.99 (Dh143) at www.amazon.com.

Alternatively, if you prefer a more rustic-looking board, choose bamboo because it has antibacterial qualities. Always wash all chopping boards in between uses with hot water and plenty of detergent, and don't store them while they are still slightly damp because this encourages bacteria to breed. Use clean knives for each task.

Organise your fridge

Fresh food should be covered and stored in a clean refrigerator until you need it. Ensure that raw meat is stored on the lowest shelf so that meat juice can't drip down and contaminate the foods on lower shelves.

Store all foods sealed in lidded boxes or with cling film. Keep cooked meat and raw meat entirely separate. Never store an open can of food in the fridge - the metal can contaminate the food. Instead, transfer the food to a lidded ceramic or plastic container. Let hot food cool thoroughly before refrigerating it because it could raise the temperature of the inside of the fridge and cause bacteria to grow.

Mind use-by dates

If a food is labelled with a use-by date, don't ignore it - even if the food looks and smells perfectly fine. The same goes for sell-by dates in shops. Older food might be on the reduced shelf and much cheaper, but it's always safer to go for food with a later sell-by date that will last for a few days longer because it's fresher.

Once any food container is opened, the contents should be consumed within a few days and it should be kept sealed and refrigerated in the meantime.

Wash fruit and vegetables

When you buy fresh fruit, vegetables and salad, it might be labelled "washed", but it's always safer to rinse it under cool running water yourself, too. It has probably been handled by pickers, packers and shop workers, and it could even carry traces of earth or pesticides.

Deter flies and pests

Wherever there is food, there are pests. At this time of year, flies are the most bothersome; they carry bacteria and are attracted to all foods.

Keep foods protected at all times with mesh covers and nets, and tackle the problem with fly papers and repellents. To limit food residues that attract flies, make sure you disinfect your work surfaces thoroughly every time you cook - before and after - with a multi-surface cleaning spray.

Always keep food containers sealed and if you see any evidence of rodents, tackle the problem immediately by calling a professional pest control company.

Freeze and defrost foods carefully

When food is frozen, any bacteria in it won't multiply, but they won't be killed either, so it's vital to defrost food correctly to prevent germs from multiplying during heating and causing food poisoning.

You should only freeze fresh or freshly cooked foods. Make sure that you label foods clearly before you freeze them, so you know how long each item has been in the freezer and what it is.

Always defrost meat and fish thoroughly before cooking, otherwise it might not get hot fast enough to kill bacteria. A lot of water is released as meat thaws, so stand it in a bowl to prevent any bacteria in the juices from spreading to other surfaces or foods. Ideally, you should defrost food slowly in a microwave with a special defrost setting if you intend to cook it straightaway. If you intend to cook it the next day but not immediately, put it in the refrigerator to thaw out slowly so that it doesn't get too warm too quickly. When you cook food that has been frozen, ensure it is piping hot throughout, so that any bacteria are killed.

Take extra care with rice

It's very easy to get food poisoning from eating reheated rice. Uncooked rice grains contain spores of bacteria that can sometimes survive the cooking process. If you leave cooked rice standing at room temperature for too long, the spores will multiply and may produce toxins that can cause food poisoning and nasty symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhoea.

Reheating rice won't get rid of these poisons, so you should always serve rice when it has just been cooked. If that isn't possible, cool it as quickly as possible after cooking - ideally within one hour - and store it in the fridge for no more than one day until reheating.