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Having a Cookout this Fourth of July?

Keep Your Food Safe!

Fourth of July Picnic

Reviewed by Wendy Marcason, RD, LDN

Fourth of July is the holiday for a cookout. Grills are ablaze, picnic tables are set, and watermelons are at the ready. But just because you're cooking and dining outside doesn't mean you can abandon food safety practices that you follow indoors.

"For some reason when [people] go outside they leave all of those wonderful [food safety] tips in the kitchen and they often forget to transfer them outside to the barbecue," says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RDN, LDN, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson.

Remember, home food safety rules also apply in the backyard. So keep these tips in mind when you're celebrating the red, white and blue.

Wash Up

Cross-contamination happens when juices from raw meats or germs from unclean objects touch cooked or ready-to-eat foods, causing bacteria to spread. Keeping food and cooking utensils properly washed and separated can reduce your risk of food poisoning.

  • Start with the grill. Wash it and make sure it's clean before you turn it on.
  • Wash your hands. Not just before eating, but also before, during and after preparing food. Salge Blake recommends bringing moist towelettes outside for the grill master to wash up after touching raw meat.
  • Don't use the same utensils for cooked and raw foods. Wash those tongs before you use them to take the cooked burger off the grill (or use a separate, clean pair). Same goes for serving platters, cutting boards and basting brushes.

Cook with Care

"Forget about relying on 20/20 vision to let you know when the hamburger or the chicken is done," says Salge Blake. Eyeballing it is a quick way to end up sick from undercooked meat. For example, when it comes to hamburgers, looks can be deceiving. According to Salge Blake, about one out of four hamburgers will turn brown prematurely before they've reached the safe internal temperature of 160°F. "Make sure you use a food thermometer to determine when dinner is ready," she says.

Check out the Safe Grilling Guide for proper cooking temps for all your favorite meat dishes.

Don't Let Food Sit Out

Perishable foods shouldn't sit out longer than two hours at room temperature. But if the weather is hot — 90°F or higher — discard the food after one hour.

Instead of leaving food outside, Salge Blake recommends serving it dinner plate style. That is, keep the food inside where it might be cooler (if you have air-conditioning) and dish it out on plates, rather than buffet style outside. "That can not only help to reduce the risk of foodborne illness but actually might even help with portion size," she says.

Keep Leftovers Safe

Keep an eye on the time, and make sure you get food put away promptly. "You've got that one hour/two hour rule and then you want to refrigerate it as fast as you can," says Salge Blake.

Store food in airtight, shallow containers (about 2 inches deep) and put it in the right place. "You want to make sure you categorize your refrigerator appropriately, and that is to make sure that any cooked food doesn’t come into cross-contamination with any raw food," says Salge Blake. "So we don't want raw chicken on one shelf dripping on potato salad on the second shelf." Put raw food in a container to catch any drippings and place it on the bottom of the fridge. Cooked foods should go on top.

See additional guidelines to determine how long your leftovers are good.

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Reviewed June 2014