Designated Hand Towels Keep Kitchens Safer

Reader Contribution by Mary Moss-Sprague
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When I took the state Extension Service master food preserver course several years ago, the first two or three classes focused solely on food safety. Not surprisingly, a much-emphasized subject was hand washing.

Now that’s the first thing I mention when teaching food preservation classes — and I keep mentioning it. Whether there’s just one person or 10 gathered in or using your kitchen, preventing the spread of microorganisms (germs) is a crucial issue. Hand washing is the first defense.

Having said that, I’ll hastily add that it drives me absolutely crazy to see people sanitizing their kitchens up one side and down the other with commercial cleaning products. The current craze to disinfect every possible object and surface isn’t necessary. Sure, I admit to keeping a little bottle of hand sanitizer in my purse to use before dining out or in other dicey situations. But, I’m not a “clean and sterile” fanatic. It has been well-proven that using too many antibacterial products is counterproductive. It’s screwing up the natural balance of good and bad bacteria and leading to resistance to antibiotics. Also, I don’t advocate using paper towels to wipe up spills or clean one’s hands. That’s what the ol’ family ragbag is for. 

Okay, let’s cut to the chase for this article’s focus: a major source of germs and their growth is in cloth dish towels, when not used properly. Otherwise, cloth towels are much more efficient, absorbent, and environmentally-friendly than paper towels. They’re perfect for drying glasses, dishes, silverware, pots and pans, etc.

Just don’t make the mistake of using those same towels for wiping and drying hands!

That bears repeating: No dirty hands should ever be wiped or dried on the same towels used for drying dishware, kitchen utensils, or countertops. Take a look at your own kitchen’s function: In most households, the kitchen is the central hub of activity. Naturally, its primary purpose is for cooking, as well as food preservation projects. But, this all-important room might also serve as “homework central” where kids do their schoolwork while snacking. Adults, too, may prefer to congregate there to munch a snack or enjoy a glass of wine when you entertain or do communal cooking.

So, think for a moment about all those folks, including yourself, cooking or chatting in the kitchen. Have you ever seen someone pick up pieces of raw meat, place them in a cooking pan, and then wipe their soiled hands on the nearest cloth towel? What happens after sneezing on your hands — do you grab that same towel? Amazingly, I’ve seen adults do both, way too many times.

How about children scampering in from play? Adults may ask, “Are your hands clean?” and the child grabs the nearest available hand towel to “clean” them. Ugh. Would you consciously then dry your hands on that same towel, and, worse yet, go on to dry glasses, plates, or silverware with it? What a great way to spread germs and other groaties.

Take heart: there’s an easy way to avoid this bugaboo. Purchase (or sew) at least six sturdy dish towels that are the same, solid color. Be sure to pick a color different from your regular kitchen towels. (By the way, striped or patterned towels are better for color-blind persons in the kitchen.) You can figure out your own these-not-those system. Then, simply designate these as the only towels to be used for hand drying in the kitchen. It may take a few reminders: “Jason, remember it’s the green towel for hands!”

Be strict about this, reminding other kitchen users that it’s an inflexible rule. Even kids can “get” the concept and will learn to comply. Our own kitchen visitors are welcomed with a smile and told, “You can wash up here; the black towel is for hand drying.” That towel gets changed for a clean one every day or so, depending on the frequency of use. Rotate these towels through the laundry with your other dish towels, always keeping at least two clean hand-wipers readily available.

Now you’ve taken a proactive, environmentally-sensible approach to minimizing the spread of illness without compromising any green-living principles!Spread the word, not the germs.

Mary Moss-Spragueis a certified Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver in Corvallis, Ore., and author of Stand Up and Garden: The No-digging, No-tilling, No-stooping Approach to Growing Vegetables and Herbs. Read all of Mary’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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