Picnic food frequently becomes forever associated with the person who provides it, like the signature dishes transported by family and friends to other holiday gatherings: Grandpa Chuck’s almost-burnt-to-a-crisp hot dogs; Aunt Tina’s splendid potato salad; Cousin Cassie’s chocolate chip dessert scones topped with Sister-in-Law Lizzie’s homemade vanilla ice cream. And it all tastes especially wonderful eaten outdoors.
The worrisome thing is, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the incidence of foodborne illness is greater during the summer. There are two reasons your summer food festivities are more easily spoiled than your winter feasts: one, bacteria multiply faster when it’s hot and humid; two, preparing food outside in conditions less sanitary than indoor kitchens makes it harder to handle food safely.
Foodborne illness, the symptoms of which are vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps, should be taken very seriously because it can lead to death. The West Virginia University Extension Service (WVUES) advises that young children, the elderly, and others with weak immune systems are particularly at risk. Note that botulism, which develops from improperly canned foods, can affect anyone, no matter how healthy and regardless of age, and may result in paralysis or fatality.
Many of us have forgotten or become a little careless with the common sense food-safety advice we learned from the good cooks in our lives and our home economics teachers. That classic information can be accessed today on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), USDA, and WVUES websites, and at FoodSafety.gov, but Panhandle Home Health (PHH) wanted to present a brief synopsis to help you put together safe summertime spreads at the height of picnic season.
An elementary principle we’ve all had reinforced because of the COVID-19 pandemic applies to food preparation: BE KEEN ABOUT CLEAN.
- Wash hands for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water before and after handling food, after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and touching pets.
- When preparing your picnic food, wash your food preparation items and surfaces, like dishes, utensils, cutting boards, and kitchen countertops, with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item. The FDA says you may want to consider using paper towels for kitchen surface cleaning. If cloth towels are used, launder them often in the hot cycle.
- Fruits and vegetables, including those with skins and rinds that you don’t intend to eat, should be rinsed thoroughly under running tap water. Firm produce should be scrubbed with a clean produce brush.
- Never wash or rinse meat, poultry, or seafood items because this increases the risk of cross-contamination (spreading bacteria to other foods, utensils, and surfaces). If meat or poultry must be rinsed because of a marinade or brine, be certain to clean and sanitize all surfaces (this means the inner sink too!) to eliminate the risk.
- If your picnic food incorporates canned ingredients, always clean the lids of the cans before opening them.
- Before taking your picnic on the road and outside, determine if there’s a source of safe drinking water where you’ll be eating so that you can thoroughly clean hands and surfaces. If there is not, bring water with you for food preparation and cleaning -- or pack clean, wet, disposable washcloths or moist towelettes -- and plenty of paper towels.
- If you clean your grill using a bristle brush, check to ensure that no detached bristles make their way into your food.
Also, KEEP RAW REMOTE.
- Uncooked meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs should be kept separate from your other foods everywhere: in the grocery cart, in your shopping bags, in your refrigerator, and in the cooler.
- One cutting board should be used to prepare produce, and another one for raw meats, poultry, and seafood.
- Don’t place cooked food on a plate that held raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs until it’s been thoroughly washed in hot, soapy water. The utensils used to flip raw meats, poultry, and seafood on the grill should not be used to remove those fully cooked proteins until they’ve been thoroughly washed.
- When grilling vegetables, it’s great to marinate them first. Never, however, use leftover marinade that has been used for raw meat, poultry, or seafood on vegetables.
Third, DON’T RELY ON ITS LOOK TO TELL IF IT’S COOKED.
- You must use a food thermometer to ensure that meat, poultry, seafood, and egg products have been cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature required to destroy any harmful bacteria, including that cooked on the grill. Grill marks may be lovely, but they are not an indication that food is safe to consume!
- Poultry (whole, pieces, and ground) – 165F
- Ground meats – 160F
- Beef, pork, lamb, veal (steaks, roasts, and chops) – 145F
- Cook meat and poultry completely at the picnic site: Partial cooking ahead of time allows bacteria to multiply to a point that they cannot be destroyed by subsequent cooking.
- Cook eggs until the yolk and white are firm.
- Foods cooked in a microwave should be checked with a food thermometer too.
- When you reheat sauces, soups, and gravies, bring them to a boil.
Finally, REMEMBER TO CHILL BEFORE YOU SIT STILL.
- Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and other perishables within two hours of cooking or purchasing (one hour if the temperature outside is above 90F).
- Never thaw food on the countertop. Defrost in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. If it’s thawed in cold water or the microwave, cook it immediately.
- Always marinate in the refrigerator.
- Large amounts of leftovers should be apportioned in shallow containers for quicker cooling in the refrigerator.
- When you are eating outside, pack coolers with bags of ice, gel packs, or frozen water bottles to ensure food stays cold and safe for as long as possible. Check the temperature of your cooler with an appliance thermometer to verify it stays below 40F. Keep the cooler full, if not with food, with extra ice. And when you do open that cooler, close it quickly. Consider acquiring a separate cooler for beverages, because coolers are frequently opened to extract beverages.
- Foods that have been at room temperature for two or more hours should not be consumed.
Our favorite food-safety maxim is this: If you have any doubt, throw it out!
We’ll close with one final caution before you run off to prepare your picnic, and be certain to share it with Grandpa Chuck. Hot dogs are a choking hazard for picnickers younger than age four. Cut hot dogs lengthwise or into very small pieces before giving them to children, and if the hot dogs have a casing, remove it before cutting the hot dog into pieces for the child.
PHH encourages you to fully appreciate great food and fun with family and friends, celebrate safely, and protect your picnic!