How to Pack a Safe Picnic

Who doesn’t love a delicious picnic on a warm day? When planning your menu and packing your goodies, don’t forget those food bugs love picnics, too! Here’s a rundown on how to pack a safe outdoor meal. By: Toby Amidor, MS, RD

High Risk Foods

Microorganisms love to grow on moist, high protein and carbohydrate-based foods that aren’t too acidic. Many of the foods we tote along on our picnics are the perfect environment to support the growth of these pathogens. Some of these foods include raw or cooked meats and poultry, cheese and other dairy products, and prepared salads like cole slaw, potato salad, and pasta salad.

At Home Preparation

Keeping food safe for a picnic begins at home. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Monitoring time and temperature: Pathogens love warm temperatures. Given enough time, they can multiply to overwhelming amounts and make you sick. This means both time and temperature should be monitored from the minute you purchase the food at the market. Schedule food shopping so you have time to drive home immediately to place meats and other high-risk foods in the refrigerator or freezer. When you’re ready to prepare the meat, limit the time it spends at room temperature. High-risk foods like meat, poultry, cheese, hot dogs, and mayonnaise should not spend more than 2 hours at room temperature.
  • Proper hand washing: One of the simplest ways to introduce food bugs is from unclean hands. Make sure to wash hands properly before handling food, after using the restroom, and after taking a break to talk on the phone or grab a snack.
  • Preventing cross-contamination: Transferring these bad boys from one surface to another is known as cross-contamination. For example, you prep hamburger patties and use the same surface and utensils to prep ready-to-eat food like sliced melon. To prevent cross-contamination, be sure to properly clean the surface, utensils, and anything else that came into contact with the raw food before moving on to another food.

Transporting Food

When you’re transporting food to the picnic, it’s important to monitor both time and temperature. This means storing high-risk foods like hamburgers, hot dogs, cheese, chicken, steaks, and salads in a cooler packed with ice. Store it in the back seat of an air-conditioned car as opposed to outside in the back of a truck. Cooked food that will be served warm should be stored in insulated containers.

If you’re going to barbecue food on site, then you’ll need an additional cooler. Raw meats and poultry should be stored separately from beverages, hot dog buns, prepared salads and other such food to avoid cross-contamination. Wrap raw meats in plastic bags to prevent leakage, too.

Think ahead if a restroom with soap and water is available at the picnic site. If not, be sure to pack moist towelettes and hand sanitizer to clean your hands.

At The Picnic

Your food temperatures are under control and raw meats are separated from the rest of the goodies—but there are still dangers that lurk ahead. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Cook food to proper temperatures— hamburgers and hot dogs to at least 160˚F and chicken 165˚F. Meat thermometers are available with temperature guidelines built in.
  • Cook food in small batches—don’t let piles of meat sit out. Cook small amounts of meat at a time and leave the rest in the cooler.
  • Separate cooked and raw—use separate tongs, serving dishes and plates for raw and cooked meats.
  • Standing time—unrefrigerated food should not be sitting out for more than 2 hours. If it’s above 90˚F then food should not be sitting out for over one hour.

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