OH-Blog Logo
Tabletop with a variety of picnic foods on several plates

How to Keep Picnic and Cookout Food Safe

The long, lazy days of summer make it open season for a round robin of backyard cookouts and spur-of-the-moment picnics. But when food and the sun get together, ants, mosquitoes, and pop-up showers aren’t the only things that can put a damper on the fun. Unfortunately, picnics and cookouts dish out an unwanted invitation to food-spoiling bacteria like salmonella and listeria.

Keeping those uninvited guests from crashing the party doesn’t take an advanced degree in food management. In fact, it’s as easy as knowing three simple things about handling food. OhioHealth registered dietitian Deanna Carey shares the how-tos of keeping food safe and good to eat.

Cooler full of picnic foods

1. How to Pack Food

Keeping cold food cold is the key to keeping food safe. Carey says the recommended temperature for perishable foods (meats, dips, foods with mayo, eggs or milk) is 40 degrees or colder.

That means packing food in coolers with lots of ice, frozen gel packs or water bottles. Take two coolers if possible, with drinks packed separately. That way as picnickers open and close the drink cooler, perishable foods won’t get hit with heat over and over. You also want to keep raw meat in the cooler until it’s time to cook, well wrapped to prevent juices from dripping on the food you’ll eat raw.

Spatula holding sausage above grill full of more sausages

2. How to Cook Food

According to Carey, meat is one of bacteria’s favorite hangouts. “There are different bacteria for different meats, and chicken is more prone to bacteria,” she says. “If meat has bacteria, cooking your meat to the right temperature will kill it.” For chicken, that temperature is 165 degrees and for ground beef, 155 degrees.

Using a meat thermometer is the best way to know if you’ve hit the mark. Checking to make sure the juices are clear is the next best thing. Summer heat is not the time for rare-cooked meat. Carey also says to use different plates for raw and cooked meat.

Table full of buffet food with people surrounding it holding plates of food

3. How to Serve Food

Again, serving food safely is all about temperature. Whether you’re serving food inside or outside, Carey says perishable foods have a danger zone you want to avoid. “When you hit it — 40 to 140 degrees — you’re in trouble.” That means once you’ve served perishable food, it shouldn’t sit out for more than two hours. And not more than one hour if it’s 90 degrees or hotter.

Carey says one way to avoid a problem is to avoid food that easily spoils. “Mayonnaise and eggs are the root of the problem,” she says. Fruits and salads with oil and vinegar-based dressings are a better bet. “And they’re healthier for you too,” Carey adds.

But if it’s not a cookout without Aunt Millie’s potato salad, you don’t have to tell her to leave it at home. Keep any perishable food cold by placing the serving container in a larger bowl filled with ice.

Looking for something healthy to bring to your next cookout? Check out our recipes!