(Family Features) - It's that frantic time of day - after work, after school, after day care, and after sports events - when you have to get dinner on the table. Overwhelming! It's more than enough to drive you to the fast food lane.
But relax! You own a microwave oven! In mere minutes, you can zap a nutritious, home-cooked, family-friendly dinner - even if the meat is still in the freezer when you get home.
The microwave oven has been called one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. Over 90 percent of homes in America have at least one. In fact, if you have ever been without one for a few days, you find out just how much you rely on it. But most folks are using theirs only for reheating leftovers, defrosting food or making popcorn.
Loyalists testify that the microwave is great for cooking ground meats, poultry, and vegetables - three items that can make a fast, family dinner. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would like to add "safe" to that. Microwave ovens cook food to temperatures hot enough to kill bacteria, but they can cook food unevenly and leave "cold spots" where harmful bacteria survive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), not cooking food to high enough temperatures to destroy bacteria is one of the top two causes of foodborne illness. For this reason, it is important to use a food thermometer to verify that foods reach USDA-recommended temperatures.
Know the wattage of your microwave
It's important to know the wattage of your oven when using cooking directions from various sources. Microwave ovens vary in wattage, and the higher the wattage of a microwave oven, the faster it will cook food.
If you don't know the wattage of your microwave oven, try looking inside the door, on the back of the oven, or in the owner's manual. If you can't find it, read the publication "Microwave Ovens and Food Safety" at www.fsis.usda.gov to learn how to use a "Time-to-Boil" test to estimate your oven's wattage. This publication also tells how to determine if a utensil is safe to use in a microwave oven.
Microwave frozen convenience foods until safely cooked
In addition to microwaving home-cooked foods safely, it's also very important to follow handling and cooking instructions on frozen convenience foods. Some frozen foods, such as breaded chicken cutlets, can look fully cooked. However, many people have gotten sick from such products that were undercooked. Just thawing them in the microwave isn't enough to make them safe. You must microwave such foods to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F to be safely cooked.
Microwave Safety Tips
Following the USDA's microwave recommendations will help you get dinner prepared speedily but safely.
- Know your microwave's wattage.
- Before freezing a package of ground beef, form it in a donut shape to thaw faster.
- Remove frozen meat and poultry from packaging before thawing to avoid chemical contamination. Transfer the frozen meat or poultry to a microwave-safe dish.
- Remove thawed portions of ground meat and transfer them to a plate; return frozen portion to the microwave for additional defrosting.
- When thawing chicken parts, break them apart as they defrost and rotate them in the dish so that the frozen areas are to the outside of the dish.
- Cook meat and poultry immediately after microwave defrosting because some areas of the frozen food may get warm or begin to cook during the defrosting time. Do not hold partially cooked food to use later.
- To remove fat from ground beef, crumble the meat into a hard-plastic colander set over a microwave-safe casserole. After microwaving, discard the fat that has drained into the casserole.
- Cover food to create steam that helps destroy harmful bacteria.
- Follow package directions to make sure all foods reach safe internal temperatures. Sometimes frozen foods look fully cooked, but they actually require cooking to be safe.
- Microwave foods to safe minimum internal temperatures as measured with a food thermometer (165°F for poultry; 160°F for ground meats).
- After microwaving, allow the food to rest so cooking is completed.
- Use cooked meat and poultry within 4 days. Leftovers may be frozen.
Consumers with food safety questions can "Ask Karen," the FSIS virtual representative available 24 hours a day at AskKaren.gov. The toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.