• By Jessica DeGore
  • In Uncategorized
  • July 3, 2019

7 Picnic Packing Tips to Avoid Foodborne Illness This Summer

By Katie Dwyer

 The weather is warming up and the days are longer, and that means it’s picnic season. Whether packing up lunch to enjoy in a local park, bring to the beach, or to serve guests in your own backyard barbecue, many al fresco feasts await. But the longer food sits outside, the higher the risk that dangerous bacteria will grow.

After just an hour in the summer heat, bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter can rapidly multiply to unsafe levels. The CDC estimates that 1 in 6 Americans gets sick with a foodborne illness each year.

The secret is to keep food out of the temperature “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F — not an easy task on a sunny 90° day. Here are some tips to pack and serve safe picnics this summer:

  1. Pack Perishables in Ice

For your fruits, veggies, guacamole, salsa, and mayo-based salads, fill about a quarter of the cooler with ice or ice packs, and chill foods in the freezer before packing to prolong their time under 40°F. Keep in mind that ice cubes can pick up bacteria from leaking food containers, so if using bagged ice, don’t re-use it. Keep the same foods in the cooler to avoid cross-contamination, and chuck the ice when you’re done.

  1. Handle Raw Meat with Care

If you plan on grilling raw meat, pack it separately from other foods to prevent dripping juices from contaminating other foods. Of course, wrap up the meat as tightly as possible to keep juices from running out in the first place.

As with any time you’re working with raw meat, make sure that any plates and utensils that touch the meat don’t touch anything else.

  1. Keep it Clean

Keep your hands clean – especially after handling raw meat – by packing your own soap, water and towels. At minimum, have hand sanitizer at the ready. It’s a good idea to bring some dish soap as well to wash any cookware, plates and utensils that came in contact with raw meat, again to reduce the likelihood that they will contaminate other materials or foods.

  1. Bring a Thermometer

Knowing the temperature danger zone doesn’t do much good without a way to know where your food stands! Pack a meat thermometer to ensure your meats are cooked to a proper internal temperature. Hamburgers should reach 160°F, while chicken breasts and legs must be cooked to 165°F. Steaks should hit 145°F.  Make sure to place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat and away from any bone. For a complete list of safe minimum cooking temps, visit Foodsafety.gov.

Place a thermometer in your cooler as well to make sure your perishables are being kept under the 40°F mark.

  1. Keep the Cooler Closed

Avoid opening up the cooler if you don’t have to. Letting cool air out and hot air in means your food will warm up faster. People will reach for beverages more frequently, so pack beverages in a separate cooler to ensure that your food cooler stays shut.

  1. Time Your Dining

Food can generally sit out for two hours before harmful bacteria starts to proliferate. If the summer heat climbs above 90°F, shorten that to an hour. Put food out when people are ready to eat it, and not before. Set a timer on your phone to remind yourself when it’s time to put food away.

For example, salsa and guacamole can sit out for an hour as people graze before dinner. When the burgers and dogs hit the table, put the apps back in the ice. Once the meal is finished, pack up leftovers right away and then put out your fruit for dessert. Timing it out this way means there’s always something for picnickers to nibble on, without anything being out for more than an hour.

  1. Don’t Overpack.

Leftovers will take time to cool back down after being placed in the cooler, and there may still be a window of ideal conditions for bacteria to grow. Try to eliminate the risk altogether by packing just enough food. Losing the leftovers also minimizes food waste.

Happy Picknicking!

Katie is a graduate nutrition student at Immaculata University, personal trainer and freelance health and fitness writer. She can be reached at Kathryn.dwyer430@gmail.com.