Today’s column is devoted to summer food safety, or as I like to say, the best tips you’ll need to know and do to make sure you don’t end up with food poisoning after you had a day of fun in the outdoors.
Regardless if you decide to spend the day at the lake, the park, hanging with your friends and family on the back deck after a full day of gardening, there is no doubt that eating will enter into the picture at some point. Many of the following tips can be found online at Foodsafety.gov or at USDA.gov.
When planning a small BBQ at home or a big blast out in the woods, the first and foremost tip I have to offer is to always wash your hands, as well as the countertop and any and all fruits and vegetables before you begin whipping up your meals.
You should always keep in mind that timing is going to be key to what you serve. An all-day food fest can be problematic if you don’t have proper refrigeration for the perishable foods. You need to plan for plenty of lead time so that any foods you are cooking can be thoroughly chilled before you pack them up to take them anywhere else. If you’re planning on eating outside on your deck, you really do need to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot so that when the food is sitting on your plate bacteria won’t have even the smallest window of opportunity to grow.
Contrary to common belief, mayonnaise is not the bad boy that causes food to spoil in the heat. The bacteria that cause the problems actually prefer eggs and potatoes as their first line of attack. Fresh fruits with thick coverings, such as watermelons and apples, will keep for several days at room temperature. Once they are cut, treat them like other perishable foods. If they are not eaten within one to two hours, discard them.
When it comes to ice packs and coolers, overkill is better. Perishable foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and salads need to be kept at 40 degrees. When you are packing up to head out, layer the ice packs throughout the food – don’t just put it on top. You also need to pack your foods right from the refrigerator into the coolers, no putting it out on the counter for a little bit while you search for that cooler you lent to your neighbor. Pack any raw meats, poultry, or seafood at the bottom of your cooler. A full cooler is a cold cooler so pack things in a tightly as you can.
Never put your cooler in the car trunk; place it inside your air-conditioned car. Keep the cooler in the shade and keep the lid closed; have a cooler with extra ice if possible so that you can add more as the ice in the food cooler melts.
Keep your soft drinks in a separate cooler from the food. Drink coolers are constantly being opened and letting in the warmer air.
When you’re not in your own home, and by that I mean anywhere you don’t have a refrigerator and sink, bring bottled water. Public fountains are notorious sites for all kinds of icky stuff and quite frankly they’re not always readily available when you need them. I also like to bring wet wipes and paper towels for cleaning hands and surfaces, as well as table cloths to prevent any possible contamination during your food prep and grilling.
If you’re pressed for time or are not an I love to cook outdoors aficionado and are planning on picking up your meal, you really should eat whatever you get within an hour of picking it up. Any longer than that and you can run the risk of it spoiling in the heat.
No matter how time saving you might think it would be, do not partially cook any of the food you plan on grilling and bringing to the picnic. And whatever you do don’t put anything you’ve cooked back on the platter you used to hold the uncooked food unless you’ve thoroughly washed and dried it. You need to grill your poultry until the juices run clear and there is no pink; hamburger should not be pink in the center.
I have what I like to call the no-more-than-1-hour rule. Never, I repeat never, eave perishable, unrefridgerated food out in the sun for more than 30 minutes and never out in the shade for more than 1 hour. Put any perishable foods back in the cooler or refrigerator as soon as you are done serving them.
If you’re like me, there will be leftovers. As much as you love your potato salad and other mayonnaise-based salads, throw them out. You don’t want to take a chance on them being spoiled. The exceptions are cold foods that were kept in a cooler for the entire time, but if the ice has melted, throw the food out.
Just know that practicing picnic safety is the best way to ensure that the perfect ending to a perfect picnic day doesn’t include a trip to the emergency room for food poising.