Picnic Safety 101?>

Picnic Safety 101

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD

Summertime is prime time for picnics and barbecues—but also for foodborne illness. About one in six Americans get sick from contaminated foods every year, with infections peaking in summer, when warm, humid weather encourages bacterial growth. (Foodborne bacteria multiply fastest between 90°Fand 110°F.) Preparing and serving food outdoors presents challenges since there may not be adequate refrigeration, and it's harder to maintain hygienic conditions away from running water.

Bear in mind that the same basic food safety advice applies wherever you are preparing and enjoying food:

  • Wash your hands before handling foods and before eating
  • Keep food-production surfaces clean
  • Wash produce well
  • Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot
  • Keep raw meats (and their juices) separate from cooked foods to prevent cross-contamination

But if you are going on a picnic where you won’t have access to refrigeration and other kitchen comforts, here are a few additional things you will need, the specifics depending on such factors as whether you are planning to grill at your outdoor location versus preparing foods at home to take on the road, and how long it will be before the food is served.

Hand sanitizer and moist towelettes

Use these for cleaning your hands if there is no running water. If feasible, pack soap and water for washing up.

Coolers and other insulated containers

These should be packed with ice, dry ice, or reusable gel packs and used to transport and store perishable picnic foods at a safe temperature (40°F or below). If you are packing raw meat, poultry, or fish, make sure they are wrapped well (zip-lock bags are a good option) and keep them separate from other foods.

Keep the cooler out of the sun (at the beach, you can partially bury it in the sand and keep it under anumbrella) and don’t open it more than necessary, since that increases the warming rate and thus could put perishables at greater risk for bacterial growth. You might even want to have a separate cooler for beverages, since that one is likely to be opened more frequently. Keep perishables in the cooler until you are ready to use them.

Put leftovers back in the cooler within two hours (one hour if the temperature outdoors is above 90°F); any longer than that, the USDA recommends discarding the foods. Obviously, some foods don’t need to be kept cold—such as whole fruits and vegetables (but if cut, they do).

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Insulated thermal containers (if you are bringing hot foods)

Wrap foods in aluminum foil or put them in aluminum or glass containers before packing them; this helps keep in the heat, though usually for a relatively short time. You can also buy gel packs that can be microwaved to provide extra heat. If you are bringing hot foods in a thermos, preheat the thermos (fill with boiling water for a few minutes and thenempty) and then fill it with piping hot food. You can’t be sure how long hot foods will stay at a safe temperature (140°F or above), however, so if you are bringing foods such as fried chicken to your picnic, eat them sooner rather than later. Someinsulated portable food warmers can be plugged into your vehicle’s power outlet to keep the foods hot during the ride.


You can put an appliance thermometer in your cooler to make sure the temperature inside stays below 40°F. It’s a good idea to also bring a meat thermometer to make sure grilled meats and poultry are cooked to the proper internal temperature, just as you should do at home. Cook poultry (whole and ground) to 165°F; ground meat to 160°F; steaks and other meats to 145°F; fish to 145°F. Grilled meats often look cooked on the outside but may still be raw inside. Ground meat (to make burgers, for instance) poses a greater risk than whole cuts like steaks or chops.

Unless you arejust planning a backyard barbecue and will finish the cooking immediately on the grill, don’t partially precook food at home to save time later, since this allows bacteria to multiply.

Clean plates and utensils

Bring enough to be able to keep raw meats, poultry, and fish separate from cooked foods. You should be especially careful not to place grilled meats back on the same plates they were onbefore cooking, since these will be contaminated with potentially bacteria-laden meat juices.

With reporting by David Fryxell. This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see 13 Tips for a Healthier Barbecue.