“Is it OK to use brown paper grocery bags to prepare snacks? I’d like to use one to shake powdered sugar on a cereal snack. I’ve heard you can cook in them, too. Is that right?”
“Is it safe to make omelets by boiling the egg mixture in a Ziploc bag? I want to make them for a camping trip.”
“Is it safe to use terra cotta flower pots for baking bread and cakes? The cakes look so cute in these containers!”
“I have a brand new garbage can. It has never held trash. Can I use it to serve punch?”
I could go on and on with the questions I’ve received through the years about various unusual containers used to prepare, cook and serve food. The questions especially seem to pop up in the spring and summer as people plan parties or head out to campsites.
The No. 1 rule for answering any of these questions is to consider the original purpose for the container. Was the container meant to prepare or serve food, with the food in direct contact with the container?
Containers that are “food grade” must meet higher standards for sanitation and safety.
Let’s consider each of the containers mentioned in the opening questions and the potential food safety issues.
- Brown paper grocery bags: Yes, brown paper grocery bags are intended to hold food. However, the food typically placed in brown paper bags is in packages or containers. Grocery bags are not a sanitary container for mixing or coating snacks with powdered sugar.
Instead, use a bowl or a zip-type plastic bag.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not recommend using grocery bags for cooking, either. The bag may ignite and cause a fire in the oven. The ink, glue and recycled materials can emit toxic fumes.
Use oven cooking bags or a pan instead.
- Plastic bags: Boiling omelets in a Ziploc bag has been something of a fad the last few years. When I first received the question, I directly contacted a staff member at the company’s consumer help line.
The company representative told me that Ziploc brand bags cannot be used to boil food. The bags are made from polyethylene plastic with a softening point of about 195 degrees. Therefore, they could melt when exposed to 212 degrees.
Some companies produce “boilable” plastic bags that can be used to cook foods. Read the manufacturer’s statement to learn about their suggested use.
Don’t push the limits.
- Tera cotta flowerpots: Some clay containers are designed for food use. However, clay pots from the gardening center are not meant to be in direct contact with food. The clay in garden pots may contain heavy metals, such as lead. Some may crack or break in the oven, too.
If you completely line a clay pot with food-grade material, such as aluminum foil, you can use it to serve food. Better yet, before serving food in it, line the pot with a smaller container from your kitchen cabinet.
- Galvanized trashcans, plastic trashcans or any type of trashcan: If you were going to a party, would you really want to eat or drink from something meant to hold garbage?
Obviously, trashcans were not meant to serve food, so the plastic or metal used to make them is not food grade. Chemicals from the plastic or metal may leach into the food. Acidic foods, such as punch, can pull harmful chemicals from the container into the beverage.
Watch for seasonal fruits and vegetables at your grocery store. Many come into season just in time for parties and outdoor picnics. Here’s a tasty recipe making use of strawberries. Serve as a snack or as a side dish with grilled chicken or fish. Or, try substituting other fruits and layering with Greek yogurt.
1 c. diced strawberries
1 diced banana
1 peeled and diced kiwi
1 cored and diced apple
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Wash and prepare fruit as indicated. Gently combine in bowl and add lemon juice. Combine sugar and spices in a separate dish. Add to fruit and gently toss.
Makes four servings. Each serving has 120 calories, 0 grams (g) of fat, 31 g of carbohydrate and 3 g of fiber. (Photo courtesy of the Midwest Dairy Association)
Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., F.A.N.D., is a professor and Food and Nutrition Specialist with the NDSU Extension Service.