Nobody ever expects a fire, a fall, or another type of accident in the kitchen, but these things happen often enough for government safety experts to name this room one of the two most dangerous in the house, along with the bathroom.
With that in mind, be sure you know these five simple steps that even safety-conscious families sometimes miss.
1. Give Grease Some Respect.
Grease tends to be the Rodney Dangerfield of ingredients, good to have around but mostly ignored, since it's not the main event in a meal. But cooking fires are the number-one cause of residential fires in the U.S. (more common than fires started by smoking), and grease is usually the culprit. Avoid frying and using deep-fat fryers around children and the elderly, who are most at risk since they have more sensitive skin (although anyone can get a nasty burn from splattering grease).
Better yet: If there is a fire, smother it with baking soda or a pot lid, rather than by throwing water on it. Water is apt to spread the flames. If the fire is around a pan, slide a cookie sheet over it using an oven mitt; this may smother the flame. Always keep a currently inspected fire extinguisher within reach in a kitchen.
2. Sharpen Your Knives.
You'd think sharp means dangerous, and that's true. But dullish blades are more likely to slip during use and therefore can cause more injuries than sharp ones. High-carbon stainless steel holds its sharpness longer than other knife material. Consider avoiding wood handles, which deteriorate over time if washed in the dishwasher, making the knives more prone to slip and harder to use.
Better yet: Learn the basics of safe knife use. Start with dry, clean hands; wet ones may slip. Always chop slowly with your dominant hand, cutting away from your body. To avoid cutting the hand that's holding the food, get in the habit of curling your fingers around and under the food, rather than sticking them out straight.
3. Stick Around When You Cook
Sounds basic, but many of us get distracted in our busy lives. Something left untended on the stovetop or in the oven can bubble over and create a grease fire, or burn if forgotten. In fact, starting to cook something and forgetting it's there is the number-one cause of cooking fires, says the Home Safety Council. If you absolutely need to leave the room, set a timer and carry it with you (or use a cellphone or watch timer) so you're sure to hear it.
If you live with a child or someone who has dementia, make a habit of checking to see that burners and ovens are off when not in use, as idle or curious hands might turn them on. Keep pot handles turned in toward the stove or to the side, not facing outward toward you, where they might be grabbed.
Better yet: Don't leave anything on the stovetop when you're not cooking, especially cloths, if there's a possibility that a child or person with dementia might turn the burners. When these vulnerable people are in the house, it's ideal to have a stove whose burner controls are on the top, where they're harder to reach, rather than right in front.
4. Remove Wobbly Stepstools.
Many kitchen storage units rise straight to the ceiling. That's great for tucking away Thanksgiving gravy tureens used once a year, but not so great for getting them in and out of the cupboard. Enter the stepstool. Unfortunately, people tend to use just about anything as a stepstool, including wobbly old ones, wooden stools meant for sitting, or small stools designed to be footrests. The ideal stepstool is a ladder-type design that rests securely on the ground and is designed for that purpose.
Better yet: Remove the need for stepstools altogether. Use only easily accessible cupboards, even if you need to pare down your possessions. By middle age, even healthy people should think twice about climbing ladders because of the fall danger, and if you have any kind of balance or strength impairment, the combination of climbing and reaching can dramatically raise the risk of an accidental fall.
5. Skip the Tablecloths With Certain Guests.
Although table coverings "finish" a table, they're a dangerous combination with certain people. Babies who are beginning walkers, for example, may grab at a hanging cloth for balance as they cruise past the table. Curious preschoolers can yank hanging cloths, bringing hot food and dishes onto their heads. Older adults with dementia have been known to get tangled in long cloths that hang into the lap, or they mistake the edge of the cloth for a napkin – and risk pulling hot food onto their laps.
Better yet: Placemats tend to be safer, if you must use anything. For people with dementia, placemats serve the added purpose of framing the plate, giving it more attention and thus helping them focus better on the meal at hand. Or use a table runner that doesn't drape over the edge of the table, if you want to make it look nice without the danger.