Grabbing a clamshell of tacos or a container of lasagna may feel safer than dining in a restaurant right now. Takeout, however, presents a different set of safety challenges.
Although the novel coronavirus can linger on surfaces for hours or days, it hasn’t been found to transmit through food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nonetheless, improper handling of takeout can still give you regular ol’ food poisoning. Planning takeout travel time and handling ensures a tasty meal without any painful late-night trips to the bathroom or ER.
“Most of the time when people get sick from food, they blame it on the last place where they ate out,” said food-safety expert Sandra G. Brown, a Washington State University emeritus faculty member. “But foodborne illness doesn’t happen right away. It can be two to three days later.”
Viruses don’t grow in food, but bacteria does — especially in what food-safety experts call the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, you’ve got to make sure the hot stays hot and the cool stays cool, just like in the 1980s slogan for the McDonald’s McDLT. Washington restaurant food-safety rules require throwing out food that’s been in the danger zone for more than two hours.
Brown recommends arriving at a restaurant before your order is expected to be ready so you know exactly when the food goes into the containers. It’s ideal to grab food from a restaurant near home so food can be eaten, heated or cooled within 30 minutes after it’s cooked, she said. If you’re driving 30 to 40 minutes to get food, consider having a picnic near the restaurant.
And do pick up the food yourself, Brown added.
“The fewer people in contact with food or packaging the better,” Brown said. Contactless delivery in which food is dropped on the doorstep still unnecessarily adds an extra person, she said.
To decrease the risk of catching the coronavirus from packaging, Brown recommends transferring food into your own dishes, throwing away the to-go containers, and washing the counter and your hands.
If food won’t be eaten right away, Brown recommends placing it uncovered in a shallow container (2 inches deep or less) in the fridge to help it cool as quickly and evenly as possible. Be especially careful with thick foods like chili, pasta and lasagna, which create a good environment for bacteria to grow, she said. Once the food is cold, cover the dish.
Safety is important when ordering takeout, but so is taste. Give some thought to what you order and how it will travel. Mark Lopez, owner of Crave Catering and Gather and Feast Farm, said pho is one of his favorite takeout meals. This noodle soup travels well, while minimizing the potential for food poisoning because of careful packaging, he said. Vietnamese restaurants usually place the noodles in one container, the cold topping like onions, cilantro and lime in another container, and the hot broth in a third container. This system works even better if cold items are separately bagged from hot items.
Another of Lopez’s favorites is La Sorrentina’s Margherita pizza, “but when it gets cold, it doesn’t taste as good,” he said.
Lopez recommends using a broiler to bring pizza back to life or sliding a slice into the toaster. He cautions against using this method for pizza with lots of toppings. (“Don’t ask how I know that,” he said.)
He doesn’t have any similar hacks for bringing cold fries back to their original crispy deliciousness, though.
“You’re going to eat those on the way home,” Lopez said, “The burger sits while I first eat the fries.”
Rachel Pinsky: firstname.lastname@example.org