Perfect Picnicking: Safe Outdoor Eating

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This is the second in a three-part series about summer outdoor celebration safety. The first post in this series, ‘Safe Grilling for Great Grilling,’ can be found on Two Guys Food, Wine, World blog.

Planning the perfect summer picnic means plenty of great food! But even good food can go bad quickly when mixed with summer temperatures. Following a few food-safety guidelines can keep your picnic pleasant and your picnickers happy and healthy.

General Picnic Food Safety

Part of picnicking can involve moving food from home to a park or campsite, so keeping it safe in transit can be challenging. As temperatures rise, bacteria can multiply. Keeping food cold until cooking and preventing cross-contamination between items is important.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offer these suggestions to prevent food-borne illness when transporting and preparing food for a picnic:

  • Keep food cold. Pack food items in coolers filled with ice or cold gel packs. Food should be kept below 40 degrees Fahrenheit until it's served or cooked. Pack meats while still frozen to help keep them colder longer.
  • Pack separate coolers for different food items. Keep one cooler for perishables, for instance, and another one for beverages. This prevents perishable items from becoming too warm with repeated opening and closing of coolers.
  • Separate cooked and uncooked meats, as the uncooked can transfer bacteria to cooked items. Seal your uncooked meats in containers and store them in a cooler until you're ready to cook -- and keep them away from raw foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables, to provide more protection from bacteria.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables before packing them in coolers. This is true even for items that will be peeled or removed from a rind such as watermelon. Unwashed produce can spread bacteria to other food.
  • Keep coolers closed as much as possible to maintain the temperature inside. Once you’ve made it to your picnic site, or even on your own patio, position the coolers out of direct sunlight.
  • Wash hands thoroughly before handling or serving any food at your picnic. If soap and clean water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Clean any surfaces you will be using to prepare and serve food at your picnic site with antibacterial wipes. Use a vinyl table cloth to cover eating surfaces for extra protection.

Safe Grilling

Undercooked meat, poultry and seafood can be a storehouse for bacteria. Cooking food at the right temperature for the right amount of time can prevent food-borne illness from ruining your picnic fun.

The FDA's guidelines for properly handling and grilling meat and other food items include these tips:

  • Marinate meat in the refrigerator -- not outside or on the kitchen counter. If you are attending a cookout at someone else’s house and have concerns, ask the host about his or her marinating style and stay away from any food you are unsure of.
  • Cook food immediately after partial cooking. If you plan on partially cooking meats and other items to reduce grilling times, remember that bacteria in partially cooked food can still multiply. Be safe and get it on the grill right away rather than allowing partially cooked food to sit for any length of time.
  • Cook meats at the proper temperature. Use a safe-food temperature guide for cooking, and check the grilled food with a meat thermometer before serving.
  • Use clean platters. Prevent cross-contamination between cooked and uncooked food items by using clean platters and utensils (not the ones you cooked with) when serving your guests.
  • Be aware of foreign items in food. If you or your host uses a wire bristle brush to clean the grill, check for detached bristles in food. Bristles can get lodged in the throat or intestine if swallowed. Use wet paper towels to clean your grill to prevent this hazard.

Time Factor

One of the most important things to remember about outdoor eating is the amount of time that has passed. It’s easy to forget about the food as you get caught up in conversation, games and relaxing with family.

The FDA lists the amount of time food can be left outside safely:

  • Cold food: Food served cold should be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder until it's time to serve. Cold food should not sit out for more than two hours and for not more than one hour if the outside temperature is above 90 degrees. If cold food is out for longer than these time periods, throw it away.
  • Hot food: Food served hot should be kept at a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above. Wrap it in aluminum foil and keep the food in an insulated container until you're ready to serve. Like cold food, hot food should not sit out for more than two hours and for not more than one hour if the outside temperature is above 90 degrees.

By following these food-handling safety tips, your summer picnic can be fun and free of food-borne illness.


Patti Richards is wife, mother of three children, and caretaker of two dogs, two rabbits and a cat. Patti regularly enjoys writing articles on health, wellness and nutrition. 

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