How to Safely Preserve Food with Kids

Canning or otherwise preserving food can extend the shelf-life of your produce but it's important you do it safely. A Macomb County food preservation expert explains.

Fruits and veggies are an important staple in any child’s diet, but they don’t always last long enough for busy moms and dads to actually use them.

That’s when knowing how to can, or otherwise preserve your food, comes in handy.

“I think canning is really important just from the standpoint that it’s such an old tradition,” says Ghaida Havern, a Food Safety Educator with the MSU extension Center in Clinton Township. Beyond that, “when you have an abundance of food that isn’t shelf-stable, canning can preserve it and make it last longer.”

Canning can be done any time of year — though most do it in the summer or fall — on a variety of food including vegetables, fruits and even meat. The best time to prepare for preservation season is in the spring by gathering utensils and equipment needed for once the produce comes in.

Many canned foods can last for up to a year in the pantry and up to six weeks in the fridge after it’s opened, which is a lot longer than you’ll get if you keep it fresh in your fridge. But it’s imperative that you can your food correctly in order to keep your family safe.

First-time preservation tips

The first way to ensure that you are canning your food correctly, according to Havern, is by choosing a research-tested recipe.

“We don’t recommend going online or using a family recipe,” she says. “We recommend you use a research-based recipe for safety so that your family doesn’t get sick.”

You can find a variety of such recipes on the extension center’s website, Michigan Fresh, and through The Home Food Preservation Center or the USDA. The University of Georgia has also published a book called So Easy to Preserve, which is known as the Bible of canning, and the Ball Corporation also offers a recipe book.

Once you have found a research-tested recipe, choose the type of preservation method that your research-based recipe calls for: Pressure canning, boiling bath water canning, dehydration or freezing.

Havern recommends first-timers try freezing their food, especially if they are doing it with their kids.

“Boiling water bath and pressure canning is more advanced,” she explains. But “there’s something called freezer jam, which introduces kids to seasonal food.”

In order to create a no-cook freezer jam, families simply pick their favorite berries or fruit, mash them together with sugar and freezer pectin, let it set for 30 minutes and pop it into the freezer for up to a year.

“Freezer jam is simply making jam and putting it into the freezer instead of on the shelf,” Havern adds. “It’s great for kids to try because you’re not dealing with boiling water.”

It’s also important to have the correct-sized jars for the recipe that you are working with.

“You want to make sure that the heat will get to the center of the jar, so it’s highly recommended to get the right size jars,” Havern says. “You can size down but never size up.”

After you process your jar in a canner, wait 24 hours and look at it again to ensure it is vacuum-sealed. If your lid is not sealed, open the can and reprocess it or put it in the refrigerator and consume within 6 weeks.

When you get ready to eat your preserved food, be sure to check that the liquid level is still where it was when you first canned it, and that there’s no weird smell, taste or mold.

What you need to get started

After you find a research-tested recipe, decide on your canning method and know the appropriate safety measures you need to take, gather the supplies that you need, which vary depending on the preservation method you choose.

“(First), you should know what you’re preserving,” Havern explains. “High-acid foods are most fruits or pickled products, so you need a water bath canner or atmospheric steam canner, but if you are canning a low-acid food, you need a pressure canner.”

Havern also suggests that you get a funnel to help you fill your jar, a bubble freer to remove the air out of your jar, a jar lifter (so that you can remove the jar from the hot water without tipping it), a rack for the bottom of the canner and either a rack or a towel to act as a buffer between the hot jar and your cold counter.

“It’s an extreme temperature that you’re going from to another, so it could crack the jars,” she says.

You’ll also need jars, rings and a new jar disc. Plus, a cool, dry place to store your preserved food and plenty of time.

Have a question about preserving food? Call the MSU extension center’s food safety hotline at 877-643-9882. For more information about Macomb County, visit the Macomb County Department of Planning and Economic Development’s website, Make Macomb Your Home.

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