Food Safety For Picnics & Outdoor Barbeques

Monday, October 23, 2006 - 4:08pm

By Michèle Turcotte, MS, RD/LDN

Whether you’re preparing for a party, barbeque, trip to the beach, park, outdoor concert or even your own back yard, chances are food will be involved. Because nothing can ruin your day faster than bad weather or spoiled food, here are some rules about food safety that won’t only save the event, but possibly your life. Not convinced? Every year, there are approximately 1.5 million cases of food poisoning and food borne illness reported that are the direct result of improperly handled, prepared or stored foods. In addition, food borne illness accounts for 6,500 hospitalizations and 100 deaths annually¹.

Keep your hands clean

One of the simplest ways to prevent food borne illness is by washing your hands. Our hands are natural carriers of disease-causing bacteria. Use soap and hot water and scrub hands, between fingers, under nails and forearms, for at least 20 seconds. Be sure to dry hands on a clean paper towel. Do this before and after handling raw meats and prior to eating. If running water is not available, set up a makeshift hand washing station using hand soap and a container filled with warm water. As a last resort, you can use hand sanitizing gel or antibacterial pre-moistened hand wipes.

Sanitize all cooking utensils and surfaces

Remember, anything that touches food can contaminate it. This includes mixing bowls, utensils, and cutting boards. When preparing your foods, be sure to always use clean utensils and cutting boards to avoid cross-contamination (bacteria being transferred from raw meat to other foods). Use different utensils and plates for cooking and serving and be sure to wash them, along with dishes, in hot soapy water, rinsing completely. Clean surfaces with detergent and an abrasive cloth/sponge and rinse well under warm running water. Then, sanitize the surface. For picnics, bring a spray bottle containing bleach and water at a ratio of 2 teaspoons of bleach per quart of water. Let the sanitizer remain on the surface 10-15 minutes and rinse, air-dry or pat with a paper towel.

Wash fruits and vegetables

Be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables prior to cooking or serving. Use a brush and running water without soap to clean them. And don’t forget to wash the outside of melons! Bacteria and pathogens can be transferred to the inside of the fruit by the knife when sliced².

Thawing meat: watch food temperatures

Thawing meat at room temperature is not safe. Thaw it in the refrigerator (at 36-38ºF), in the microwave or under cool running water (less than 70ºF for more than two hours). If you don’t use refrigeration to thaw the meat, make sure to cook it immediately! It’s a good idea to invest in a digital read thermometer for to check whether grilled meats are cooked. These are accurate and easy to use.

  • The “temperature danger zone” for bacteria growth is between 40ºF and 140ºF.
  • Cold foods should be kept at or below 40ºF.
  • Hot foods should be kept above 140ºF.

Cooked Food Safety - cooking meat: check temperatures for “doneness”

For picnics, consider serving pre-cooked meats that have been chilled or completely cooking the meat in the microwave prior to putting it on the grill. If you do cook them, meats must be cooked thoroughly to destroy bacteria. There are different temperatures that indicate “doneness” for different types of meat:

  • Ground beef patties should be cooked until the center of the patty reaches 160ºF.
  • Whole chickens should be cooked until the center of the breast reaches 180ºF.
  • Chicken breasts and thighs and should be cooked to 160ºF.
  • Beef, veal and lamb should be cooked to 145ºF3.

Making salads: maintain cool temperatures

While mayonnaise usually takes the blame for causing food borne illness, the real culprits in picnic salads are the other ingredients (potatoes, eggs, tuna, and pasta). These ingredients are usually combined at room temperature, and then chilled. That’s not the way to do it; it takes too long for the salad to get below 40ºF. An ingredient such as tuna is typically opened at room temperature and added to a salad or bowl right out of the can. Bacteria are introduced and multiply while ingredients are at room temperature. Before you make the salad, thoroughly chill all salad ingredients, including the mayonnaise, prior to combining2.

Transporting, storing and cooling foods

Keep all foods—including cut up fruit, macaroni, and salads that contain milk, meat or eggs—on ice in airtight containers. Store these foods by nesting them in (not on) ice. Use a larger bowl filled with ice or a cooler/ice chest (but not Styrofoam). Remember to add ice to the ice chest to keep the temperature below 40ºF. Store your cooler in the shade or in an air conditioned car, if possible. Use separate coolers for raw versus ready-to-eat foods. Hot foods can be kept warm in a 200ºF oven or hot grill. If any food has been left out of the ice chest for two hours or more, throw it out! In temperatures above 85ºF, food shouldn’t sit out for more than one hour.

Did you know that cooling foods is the number one cause of food borne illness? Why? Because these foods must pass through the “temperature danger zone” (40ºF-140ºF) and this can take more than two hours. To minimize the risk, break food into smaller pieces and chunks, slice cooked meat and distribute pots of beans into five to six smaller, shallow containers to decrease cooling time. Only reheat leftovers once to 165ºF4.

Hygiene is key: think about the danger of bacteria from preparation to storage of food

Food borne illness is caused by bacteria which grow and spread due to improperly prepared, cooked or stored foods, from cross-contamination and/or unclean hands, surfaces and utensils. Remember, just because you left food out once, ate it and did not get sick does not mean you never will, so take the proper precautions. Remember the following: keep hands, utensils, serving bowls and surfaces clean, invest in a digital thermometer to check the temperature of your foods, pack cold foods on ice and transport and store foods in airtight containers. Avoid cross-contamination by separating raw and ready-to-eat foods, and refrigerate leftovers immediately! For more tips and information on food safety, visit