When to Nix the 5-Second Rule (and When You're Good to Chew)

Half-eaten chicken on the kitchen floor? Think twice.

Do I even have to define the 5-second rule for you? Of course not. It’s long since passed from winking mom commentary into the national vernacular. In fact, it’s moved from folk lore to science: there are actually multiple studies on when the “rule,” beloved of parents whose kids have dropped their only teething biscuit to the sidewalk, applies. So, does the 5-second rule stand up to science?


Skittle on the sidewalk? Eat up! (Frankly, I didn't.)

It depends, as these things so often do, on circumstance. Some answers were obvious, others less so. I’ve always been leery of the sidewalk, but ok with my own kitchen floor. Research reported in the Chicago Tribune suggests I’ve got it backwards. The sidewalk is relatively clean; my kitchen floor–possible home to uncooked meat and chicken juices–not so much. I would have guessed right about what kind of food fares better when dropped: wet foods like apple slices attracted bacteria faster than dry foods like Skittles. (If you’ve already licked the Skittle, that presumably no longer applies.) All of that said, sometimes I toss what falls to the kitchen floor, sometimes I dust off the cookie from the sidewalk–and sometimes I don’t.

The Tribune suggests that we base this decision more on how badly we want the food and on whether anyone is looking rather than on food safety, and I admit that’s true of my own food (if the last salted chocolate caramel goes down on that kitchen floor, I don’t care what you say, I’m eating it). I take different things into consideration with my kids: how much they’ll scream if I don’t give it back, how irritated I am with them in general and how much their screaming will affect my day, how much the food cost me, whether it’s easily replaceable and how desirable it was in the first place.

Thus, a lollipop dropped from the mouth of a child who’s just knocked over a supermarket display is not likely to be returned, while a $6 organic, locally raised burger that goes off the picnic table at the farmer’s market will probably get put back on the plate. It’s my own complicated calculus, and I’m not likely to replace it with the results of research (although I might refer to said research to to uphold a conclusion I would have reached anyway). I tend to see my own kitchen floor as safe, and probably will until someone actually tests it and proves otherwise, while I have seen many a dog poop or pee on the sidewalk, and I’d just as soon not eat either. In other words, I’m entertained by your research, science-folk, but I’m not going to change my behavior. On some things, and perhaps this is the most ridiculous of them, I’m firmly convinced that I know best.

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