Get Up & Grow: Healthy Eating and Physical Activity for Early Childhood - Cooking for Children

Food Safety- Allergies, choking and food handling

Page last updated: 09 June 2011

Introduction to food safety

Food safety is an important consideration when providing food to children. This includes safety in all aspects of preparing and serving food, such as managing any risks of choking, avoiding allergic reactions, sensitivities and intolerances, and ensuring that food is not contaminated.

Allergies and intolerances

Some children may have adverse reactions to certain foods. The cause of such reactions may be an allergy or intolerance to that food. Allergies and intolerances are not the same thing.

Food allergies

Food allergies are caused by a reaction of the immune system to a protein in a food. The most common sources of food allergy in children under five are cow’s milk, soy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, sesame, fish and shellfish. Food allergies occur in around one in every 20 children, and some of these allergies are severe. Ensuring that children avoid exposure to any foods they are allergic to is the only way to manage food allergies.

As the person responsible for preparing food, it is your role to ensure that children with allergies are not exposed to a ‘trigger’ food or foods. When a child with a known food allergy is enrolled with your setting, the child’s parents will provide medical information and work with staff and carers in the setting to develop an allergy management plan. In addition to a risk management plan, the setting will need:
  • the name of the child and a photo
  • details of all allergies and trigger foods
  • details of a first aid or anaphylaxis management plan, co-written by parents and the setting’s director or coordinator.
Trigger foods should never contaminate any food that is to be served to children with allergies. If a meal provided by the setting is to be eaten by all the children, including a child with a certain allergy, it should not contain any ingredients that pose any risk. Meals made with ingredients that state ‘May contain traces of nuts’ on the label should never be given to a child with a nut allergy, unless the child’s family has specified particular foods that are safe for their child.

Keep all food preparation areas clean and wash all utensils carefully, especially if you have been working with a known trigger food.

Some settings will choose to leave trigger foods off their menu completely. This is not always necessary, and should only be considered upon written recommendation from an appropriate medical professional. Refer to your setting's allergy management policy for specific details.

If an allergy is severe, it may be decided that the child will only eat food brought from home. This will need to be decided when the child is enrolled.

Refer to the Australasian Society for Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) website for more information on allergy management plans:

Food intolerance

Reactions from food intolerance are usually less severe than allergic reactions, and require a larger dose of food.

Parents will usually provide early childhood settings with strategies for minimising their child’s exposure to particular foods.

Remember, you must be confident that the food you are preparing for each child is safe.

Choking risks for toddlers and young children

Young children’s teeth and chewing skills are still developing. They have small airways, and food that is inhaled or ingested can sometimes easily lead to blockage of the airway. Because of this, children should always be seated and supervised while eating.
Top of page
Particular food items pose greater choking risks to young children, and extra care should be taken with these foods.

Common foods that may cause choking include:
  • hard food that can break into smaller lumps or pieces
  • raw carrot, celery and apple pieces, which should be grated, finely sliced, cooked or mashed to prevent choking
  • nuts, seeds and popcorn
  • tough or chewy pieces of meat
  • sausages and hot dogs, which should have the skin removed and be cut into small pieces to prevent choking.
Hard lollies and corn chips also present a choking risk, but these should not be offered in the setting as they are sometimes foods.

Safe handling of food

Young children’s immune systems are still developing, so it is particularly important that food safety guidelines are followed whenever preparing food for them.

Contamination in food can include:
  • foreign bodies – hair, pieces of metal or other objects accidentally picked up during the preparation and cooking process
  • chemicals from the food production process, or cleaning materials
  • natural contaminants, such as toxins
  • contamination from pests
  • bacteria.

Unsafe food and children

Children are more likely than adults to become ill from eating unsafe food. In early childhood settings, the larger the number of children being fed, the larger the risk of contamination. This is because it is more difficult to handle larger quantities of food safely.

Bacteria in foods

There are bacteria present in most foods, and food spoilage is often caused by bacteria. Bacteria often make food inedible and unpleasant, but are not always harmful. Some bacteria, called pathogens, are harmful and can cause food poisoning or gastro-enteritis.

Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Different bacteria cause different illnesses – some are short-term and quite mild, while others are more serious and may include dehydration and require hospitalisation for treatment.

Food poisoning is especially serious when it occurs in children and elderly people because their immune systems are more vulnerable and they become dehydrated more easily.
Top of page

Preventing gastro-enteritis

The most common cause of gastro-enteritis is viral illness passed on through contact between people, rather than through food. Good hygiene, particularly hand-washing, is extremely important to limit the spread of viral gastro-enteritis.

High-risk foods

Foods that allow the easy growth of bacteria are those that are moist and contain a lot of nutrients. These foods, called ‘high-risk’ foods, include milk, meat, fish and eggs, as well as any dishes containing these ingredients. Cooked rice also allows some bacteria to grow. If these foods are left out of the refrigerator for long periods of time, they will spoil and not be edible. However, they will only cause illness if they contain harmful pathogenic bacteria. Following the correct cooking and storage procedures will help to keep food safe, by controlling any conditions that could otherwise allow bacteria to reproduce and grow to large numbers.

Low-risk foods

Foods unlikely to encourage bacterial growth, or ‘low-risk’ foods, include uncooked pasta and rice, biscuits, packaged snack foods, lollies and chocolates. These foods can be kept safely for long periods of time without refrigeration. Canned food is safe while the can is still sealed, but once opened the food may become high-risk. Lollies, chocolates and many packaged snack foods are sometimes foods, and are not suitable for settings.

Preparing food safely

There are a number of factors to consider when ensuring that food is safe.

Sourcing food

  • Buy food from trusted suppliers.
  • Buy fresh foods from places where turnover is high.
  • Make sure that packaging is unbroken and products are within their use-by date.
  • Transport high-risk foods quickly or in cool containers.

Food storage

  • Protect low-risk foods by placing them in sealed containers once packages have been opened.
  • Keep high-risk foods refrigerated before cooking, or until they are ready to be eaten.
  • Place any cooked high-risk foods back in the refrigerator if they are not being eaten straight away.

Food preparation

  • Always wash hands before handling any food. Wash them again after touching your hair, wiping your nose or a child’s nose with a tissue, sneezing, going to the toilet, assisting a child with toileting, changing a nappy or touching other items that may carry bacteria.
  • Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and fish, cooked items such as meat and vegetables, and fruit and sandwiches. Colour code boards to ensure that they are used only for the right foods.
  • Wash knives after use with uncooked meat and fish, and before use with any foods that are ready to be eaten.
  • Ensure food is cooked or reheated to the correct temperature.

Food preparation with children

  • Ensure that children always wash hands before handling any food.
  • Supervise children at all times while in the kitchen.
  • Take care to avoid any injuries from sharp knives and hot surfaces.

Reusing food

Top of page
  • Do not reheat cooked food more than once.
  • Discard any food served but not eaten.
  • Discard any food that was not served but has been out of the refrigerator for more than two hours.
  • When reheating food, reheat it to steaming hot, allow it to cool to serving temperature and then serve immediately.

Kitchen environments

  • Keep all kitchen areas clean.
  • Check daily that the refrigerator is working and that food is cold.
  • Wash dishes between use with hot soapy water and leave them to dry, rather than using a tea towel. Generally, a dishwasher is required for safe washing of children’s dishes.

Serving food safely

It is important that both adults and children understand some basic rules for serving food in a hygienic way. Some key points include:
  • Children and adults should wash hands before eating.
  • Tongs and spoons should be used for serving food. By providing child-sized serving utensils, children can be encouraged to be independent while still maintaining safe food-handling practices.
  • All food served to the table or individual plates should be discarded if uneaten, rather than served later.
  • Any food not served from the kitchen can be covered and refrigerated, then reheated and served later.
Food already reheated cannot be heated again – for example, a curry cooked the day before and refrigerated, then reheated and served the next day in the setting cannot be reheated again and served later.
  • Children should not share bowls or utensils, or eat from each other’s plates or cups.
  • Food dropped on the floor should not be eaten.

Handling kitchen emergencies safely

What if the refrigerator breaks down?

You may sometimes be faced with events that are out of your control, such as the refrigerator breaking down. If this happens, change the menu so that you can use the most expensive foods straight away. If the refrigerator is kept closed, it will keep the temperature low for some time. It may be worth buying some ice to keep food cold, and this gives you time to cook and arrange a refrigerator service and alternative storage if needed.
Top of page
You may be able to store the food you cannot use straight away in another refrigerator – a parent’s, for example.

Serve low-risk food items if it is going to be some time before the refrigerator is repaired. Some examples include:
  • sandwiches with fillings such as baked beans, peanut butter (if it is allowed in your setting), egg or tuna (cooked or prepared just before needed)
  • pasta, rice, onions and canned tomatoes or tuna (all cooked and served immediately)
  • canned evaporated or dried milk
  • canned or freeze-dried vegetables
  • fresh and canned fruit.
Any food not used at a mealtime should be discarded.

The cook’s day off

Having an extra day’s meal prepared and frozen is good preparation for a planned day off, or days when you are unexpectedly unable to come to work (see the recipe section for recipes which freeze well). Unless the freezer is very large, it may be easier to prepare and freeze items that can be used along with items from the cupboard. For example, frozen pasta
sauce can be combined with pasta cooked on the day.

Any frozen food should be used within three months. If the pre-prepared frozen food is not needed within three months, use it on the menu and replace it in the freezer with a freshlycooked meal.

Sandwiches are time-consuming to prepare for large numbers. A good alternative is baked beans, served with bread or toast.