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To guard against food-borne illnesses, make sure you cook chicken to 165 degrees.

For many families, the back-to-school season also ushers in an increase in extracurricular activities, which, sadly, often puts a strain on gathering for family meals.

To focus on this issue, the Food Marketing Institute has designated the month of September as National Family Meals Month, with the goal of reminding Americans that, despite busy schedules, we still need to find time to gather around the dinner table together to share meals and conversation. Research has shown that when families have meals together, it decreases a child’s risk of dangerous behaviors such as substance abuse, violence and self-harm. Family meals have also been shown to increase social skills, mental well-being and healthy eating behaviors in children, including the consumption of more fruits and vegetables, resulting in less risk of obesity. Studies also show children who participate in family meals have higher self-esteem and have higher rates of sharing and respect.

In short, the more meals a family shares together, the stronger the connections of the individual members.

For families committed to having meals together amid the daily hustle and bustle, focusing on planned or quick meal preparation is key.

Coincidentally, September is also National Food Safety Month, and a popular part of many American meals has recently made national news due to new U.S. Department of Agriculture research — the proper preparation of poultry products.

 Chicken is the second-largest food category responsible for food-borne illness, and studies have found that the rinsing of poultry products prior to cooking increases the spread of raw poultry juice around the kitchen and into other foods, thus increasing the risk of cross-contamination and foodborne illness. Bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter cause the food-borne illnesses related to poultry, and just one drop of juice from raw poultry could contain enough bacteria to make an entire family extremely ill.

A simple way to decrease the chances of contaminating other dishes with poultry-related bacteria is to prepare these other dishes before working on the poultry preparation. Washing and rinsing poultry does not kill bacteria, and these germs are invisible to our senses. The proper means of eliminating bacteria is to cook the poultry to 165 degrees, using a calibrated food thermometer to check the food’s internal temperature at its thickest part. To minimize the chances of cross-contamination, use warm water to wash hands before and after handling poultry and all raw foods, and be sure to wash all surfaces and food preparation utensils with warm soap and water if they were in contact with raw foods.

For recipe and meal ideas for National Family Meals Month or for more information go to: fmi.org. If you want to learn more about National Food Safety month and access food-safe recipes go to the Partnership for Food Safety Education at fightbac.org

Stacy Reed is an educator with Penn State Extension in Lancaster, specializing in food safety and nutrition.