How to Prevent 7 Picnic Food Safety Mistakes

Going on a Picnic

Reviewed by Wendy Marcason, RD, LDN

Summer is here and with it picnic season, a time to enjoy favorite summer dishes in the great outdoors. When you're relaxing with family and friends, it's easy to get caught up in the fun and accidentally cross-contaminate food, or forget to pack enough ice to keep your cooler cool. Unfortunately, one small error can sicken your whole crew, making you one unpopular host! One in six Americans gets sick every year from foodborne pathogens. Stay healthy by learning how to prevent these seven common picnic food slipups.

Picnic Error: You Didn't Wash Your Hands

"The biggest mistake people make is not washing their hands at all, or often enough during food preparation," says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE. "Nearly half of all foodborne illnesses could be eliminated if people would wash their hands more often when preparing food."

Wash your hands before cooking, after handling raw meat and before eating. Bring hand sanitizer if there is no running water at your picnic site, and rub it all over your hands, including between fingers and around nails.

Picnic Error: You Didn't Start with a Clean Slate

Your hands aren't the only things you should keep clean. If you're not careful, juices from raw meat and poultry can drip into your cooler, creating a breeding ground for bacteria growth. Before you pack for your picnic, sanitize your cooler and wash reusable bags you'll use to transport food. Pack your food in clean, tightly sealed containers.

If you won't have access to running water at your picnic site, wash fruits and veggies at home first. Wash produce even if you plan on peeling it; bacteria can transfer from the knife or peeler to the edible portion.

Picnic Error: You Cross-contaminated Plates

If you won't be able to wash plates, tongs and serving utensils at the picnic site, bring two sets: one for handling raw meats, and one for serving cooked meat. Accidentally serving cooked hamburgers on the same plate you used for the raw patties can lead to foodborne illness. Make sure you keep ready-to-eat food like buns, fruits, vegetables and side dishes away from contaminated serving utensils, too.

Picnic Error: Your Cooler Lost its Cool

Even an insulated cooler can't keep food cool enough on its own. Pack your cooler about three quarters of the way full of food, reserving one quarter of the space for ice packs. If possible, chill or freeze foods before packing them in your cooler. Pack cold and hot food separately.

Always pack a thermometer and keep an eye on it throughout the day. "Without a thermometer in the cooler, you can't be sure that the food is indeed at 40°F or below," says Dobbins. "Often the cooler is sitting in the sun or in a hot car so long that the temperature goes above 40 degrees."

Consider packing beverages in a separate cooler. You can keep the cooler with the perishable food closed while the beverage cooler is frequently opened and shut.

Picnic Error: You Repurposed Ice

If you're bringing ice to use in beverages, pack it in a separate sealed bag. Don't use loose ice used to keep food cold in beverages. This ice could have picked up odorless, invisible bacteria from leaking food.

Picnic Error: You Let Food Sit Out

Keep perishable picnic food out of the danger zone — a temperature range between 40°F and 140°F. When food is in the danger zone, bacteria can double in number every 20 minutes. "Unfortunately, you cannot see, smell or taste if a food has harmful bacteria or toxins growing in it," says Dobbins. "This is very different from 'spoiled' food."

Don't let food sit out more than two hours. If the temperature outside is 90°F or above, food may only sit out for an hour. It's easy to lose track of time when you're relaxing outside. Bring a timer or set an alarm on your cell phone to remind you when it's time to put food away.

Remember – it's not just meat that can make you sick. All perishable food should be monitored closely, especially egg, potato and tuna salads made with mayonnaise, and anything dairy-based.

Picnic Error: You Didn't Bring a Food Thermometer

Meat needs to be cooked to certain temperatures to control harmful bacteria. Hamburgers should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F. Chicken breasts and legs must be cooked to 165°F. (View the full chart of safe temperatures for cooked meat.)

There are right and wrong ways to take the temperature of meat. For example, you'll get a false reading if the food thermometer touches a bone when you're testing a chicken breast. Hamburgers should always be tested in the thickest section. Here are some other important tips for properly using a food thermometer.

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