Picnic and barbecue season offers lots of opportunities for outdoor fun with family and friends. But these warm weather events also present opportunities for foodborne bacteria to thrive. As food heats up in summer temperatures, bacteria multiply rapidly.
To protect yourself, your family, and friends from foodborne illness during warm-weather months, safe food handling when eating outdoors is critical. Read on for simple food safety guidelines for transporting your food to the picnic site, and preparing and serving it safely once you’ve arrived.
Pack and Transport Food Safely
Keep your food safe: from the refrigerator/freezer — all the way to the picnic table.
- Keep cold food cold. Place cold food in a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs. Cold food should be stored at 40 °F or below to prevent bacterial growth. Meat, poultry, and seafood may be packed while still frozen so that they stay colder longer.
- Organize cooler contents. Consider packing beverages in one cooler and perishable foods in another. That way, as picnickers open and reopen the beverage cooler to replenish their drinks, the perishable foods won’t be exposed to warm outdoor air temperatures.
- Keep coolers closed: Once at the picnic site, limit the number of times the cooler is opened as much as you can. This helps to keep the contents cold longer.
Quick Tips for Picnic Site Preparation
Food safety begins with proper hand cleaning — including in outdoor settings. Before you begin setting out your picnic feast, make sure hands and surfaces are clean.
- Outdoor Hand Cleaning: If you don’t have access to running water, use a water jug, some soap, and paper towels. Or, consider using moist disposable towelettes for cleaning your hands.
- Utensils and Serving Dishes: Take care to keep all utensils and platters clean when preparing food.
Follow Safe Grilling Tips
Grilling and picnicking often go hand-in-hand. And just as with cooking indoors, there are important guidelines that should be followed to ensure that your grilled food reaches the table safely.
- Marinate safely. Marinate foods in the refrigerator — never on the kitchen counter or outdoors. In addition, if you plan to use some of the marinade as a sauce on the cooked food, reserve a portion separately before adding the raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Don’t reuse marinade.
- Cook immediately after “partial cooking.” Partial cooking before grilling is only safe when the partially cooked food can go on the hot grill immediately, for example at a home with a grill on the patio or deck.
- Cook food thoroughly. When it’s time to cook the food, have your food thermometer ready. Always use it to be sure your food is cooked thoroughly. (See Safe Food Temperature Chart)
- Keep “ready” food hot. Grilled food can be kept hot until served by moving it to the side of the grill rack, just away from the coals. This keeps it hot but prevents overcooking.
Prevent “Cross-Contamination” When Serving
Never reuse a plate or utensils that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood for serving — unless they’ve been washed first in hot, soapy water. Otherwise, you can spread bacteria from the raw juices to your cooked or ready-to-eat food. This is particularly important to remember when serving cooked foods from the grill.
Serving Picnic Food
Keep Cold Foods Cold and Hot Foods Hot
Keeping food at proper temperatures — indoor and out — is critical in preventing the growth of foodborne bacteria. The key is to never let your picnic food remain in the “Danger Zone” — between 40 °F and 140 °F — for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour if outdoor temperatures are above 90 °F. This is when bacteria in food can multiply rapidly, and lead to foodborne illness.
Instead, follow these simple rules for keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot.