Ten Tips For Safe Picnicking and Barbecuing in the Summer Heat

July 16, 2010

By Terry Smiljanich:

We all love the great American tradition of outdoor picnics and barbecuing during the summer, with kids swimming and playing, while the smell of  hamburgers and hot dogs grilling on an open fire invite everyone to dinner. No one wants to ruin this idyllic scene with sick guests suffering from the effects of food poisoning due to toxic bacteria growing in the warm air.

Here are ten tips to help insure your picnic food stays safe for everyone:

  1. Start off with clean food. As in all cooking, be sure that as you prepare the potato salad or shape the hamburger patties you first thoroughly clean your hands and all utensils, so the food starts out as free of bacteria as possible.
  2. Separate the raw from the cooked. Raw meat or poultry already has some bacteria in it, hopefully held in check by storage in cold temperatures in your refrigerator. The juice from this raw food should never be allowed to mix with other food, or even with plates and utensils to be used in eating. That means you should never use the same plates to hold the raw food and then serve it when cooked.
  3. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Bacteria grows best between 40 and 140 degrees. Cold food (eg. potato salad, deviled eggs) should be kept at or below 40 degrees from the time it is prepared to the time it is served. Hot foods (e.g., casseroles, mashed potatoes) should be kept above 140 degrees until served. This means using proper coolers or insulated containers to keep food at these temperatures from the time of preparation up to the time of serving.
  4. Treat partially cooked food just like raw food. Sometimes you might want to partially cook a meat ahead of time in order to cut down on the cooking time at the park. Many safety experts recommend against doing this, as partially cooked food can become infected with bacteria which will start to grow. Heating up such foods later does not kill whatever bacteria established a foothold. If you must pre-cook, treat the food as though it were still raw, refrigerate it immediately, and keep it below 40 degrees until it reaches the grill.
  5. Pack your coolers properly. Keep raw meats at the bottom of the cooler so that no juices can make their way to other foods. Keep drinks in a separate cooler. Cans and bottles contain bacteria on their surfaces that you don’t want to get onto your food. Pack your coolers as full as possible. Contrary to what you might think, a full cooler keeps food cooler than a partially filled cooler.
  6. Is mayonnaise dangerous on a picnic? Mayonnaise has established a reputation as a condiment that is especially susceptible to bacteria on a picnic. This is not true, as mayonnaise is very acidic, just like  ketchup and mustard, and is not conducive to the growth of bacteria. It is the ingredients you mix with mayonnaise, such as potatoes, eggs, or prepared sandwiches, that can spoil quickly in the heat. It is best to keep condiments in smaller jars rather than large containers, but as long as they are kept in closed jars and separate from the food until used, they are safe at room temperature.
  7. Transport your coolers properly. No matter how well built, coolers are not perfect insulators and will not retain their cold temperatures for long. Don’t put the coolers in the trunk of your car. Keep them in the air conditioned car during transport to help them maintain their internal temperatures. When unloaded, keep the coolers in the shade to further slow the process of warming up.
  8. Follow recommended cooking temperatures on the grill. Just because you’re using a grill doesn’t mean you can ignore safe cooking temperatures. Hamburgers, for instance, have large surface areas and should never be cooked “rare” on a grill. They should reach an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees. Hot dogs should reach a temperature of 165 degrees (easy to do since they heat up rather quickly). Not many of us take a meat thermometer on a picnic, relying on a “sense” of when things are done, but if you want to be a safe cook, you might think about packing a thermometer.
  9. Eat up! It’s hard on a picnic to have everyone sit down at the same time to eat. “Come and get it!” It’s OK to let food sit out for a small period waiting for people to serve themselves. If the outside temperature is below 90 degrees, food can sit out for up to two hours. If it is 90 degrees or above, however, food should not sit out longer than one hour.
  10. Throw away the leftovers. It’s tempting to save some of Aunt Millie’s delicious potato salad to take home, but having sat out in the summer heat for an hour or so, it’s best to just throw away any leftovers. Bacteria will continue to grow long after the family has packed the car for home. When planning a picnic, this is why it is a good reason to carefully plan how much to prepare in order to cut down on leftovers. People can always fill up on cookies after the meal, which don’t spoil.

So prepare carefully, pack well, and head on down to the local lake for some summer fun.