Your Guide to Food Safety at Summer Picnics

Jul 10, 2018 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Picnic lunch from above
Image: Westend61/Getty Images.

Summertime picnics are so much fun, right? You get to hang with your friends and family while putting together an awesome summer spread to nosh on while you're outdoors. Whether you're heading to a favorite park for a picnic or hosting a BBQ in your backyard, it's essential to make sure you're following all the food safety rules because if you don't, someone can get sick.

Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind as you plan that summer shindig.

Food that sits out too long can make you sick

Dr. Arlene C. Seña, a physician and associate professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, tells SheKnows that if cooked or uncooked foods are not stored under the proper conditions (such as in a cooler or refrigerator), they can become hosts to unwanted bacterial growth. This can lead to illness, including problems with vomiting and diarrhea, and can affect whoever consumes the foods that are left out too long.

"When these foods are already contaminated with bacteria and they are eaten without proper cooking or washing, people can get foodborne illnesses," she explains. 

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Foods need to be properly stored within 1 to 2 hours

Foods that are perishable must be refrigerated within two hours of setting it out, Seña says. However, if it's 90 degrees F or above, that time limit shortens to one hour. Ice-filled coolers can substitute for a refrigerator, which is handy if you're away from home. 

Some foods are riskier than others

While your chips and soda will be OK left outside in the heat, that's not true for a ton of your picnic favorites. "Any perishable food item (meat, poultry, fish, milk and eggs) that are left out for too long can reach a temperature that allows bacteria to grow," Seña explains. Don't forget about items that are made with perishable ingredients, such as pasta salad. 

To keep track of your time (because we know time really does fly when you're having a blast), she suggests making a note of the time (or even setting a timer on your phone) to keep track how long your items have been out. This way, you know when it's time to put them back in cold holding. 

This goes for fresh fruits and veggies too. "Fresh produce should be refrigerated within two hours of peeling or cutting," she says. "Leftover cut produce should be discarded if left at room temperature for more than two hours."

Leaving food out isn't the only concern

Unfortunately, there are other ways foodborne illnesses can make an appearance at your summer barbecue. Problems with your food prep can cause problems too. 

"Cross-contamination and not properly cooking meat and poultry can also lead to foodborne illnesses," Seña says. It can be easy to cross-contaminate ready-to-eat food items with raw meat or eggs if you use the same cutting board or forget to wash your hands after touching those items.

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Also, she notes that cooking to the correct internal temperature is vital. Make sure your meat, poultry and seafood are cooked to the correct internal temperature when you're preparing your specialties. This temperature can vary from 160 degrees F for ground meats to 145 degrees F for fresh steak to 165 degrees F for poultry items (see the federal recommended internal temp guidelines here). 

What to do if you get sick

Even if you think you're doing everything right, time can slip away, and your picnic food might start teeming with bacteria — and you won't know it until it's too late. Dr. Erik Mondrow, a physician and internal medicine expert practicing in Colorado, tells SheKnows what to look out for. "Symptoms can happen right away or after days," he says. "Watch for belly pain, vomiting, diarrhea or fever."

While most people have immune systems that can deal with these sorts of illnesses within a few days, he explains that it's possible to experience dehydration, and some people (often the very young, the very old or those with weakened immune systems) can have a harder time dealing with the illness on their own. "Don’t wait to seek medical attention if symptoms are severe or if you can’t keep liquids down," he notes. 

So, bust out the picnic basket or invite all your friends and family over for a backyard cookout, but make sure your food items are cooked and prepared properly — and stocked back into your fridge in an hour or two. Your intestines (and those of your guests) will thank you. 

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