Picnic food safety 101: Keep it cool

Sunday, June 28, 2009

With the picnic days of summer here, people are getting out their grills and coolers and taking outdoor food adventures. With the temperatures up and the sun out, certain precautions need to be taken to ensure the food does not spoil and these events don't end with a trip to the hospital.

Raina Childers, registered dietitian at HealthPoint Fitness, recommended insulated coolers to store food in and suggested that if a long drive is involved, to pack the food just before leaving home. Keep the cooler in an air-conditioned vehicle, not the trunk. Once the coolers are outside, keep them in the shade whenever possible.

Childers and Lori Pettet, a registered dietitian at Saint Francis Medical Center, provided some other guidelines about keeping food and drinks safe in the heat this summer.

Potato salad

Mayonnaise-based potato salad is considered a high risk food unless it's eaten right away. Childers suggests that if there's a long road-trip before you eat, to take baked potato chips instead of potato salad. It is recommended that the potato salad be kept in 40 degree temperatures before serving. It can stay in the heat for a total of two hours before it is considered dangerous. However, if the temperature is above 90 degrees, Childers suggests one hour. Bacteria doesn't grow as quickly in vinegar-based potato salad, but to be safe, follow the guidelines for mayonnaise-based potato salad.

Macaroni salad with tuna

Childers said this is high risk to serve at a picnic or barbecue because the more protein content of the food, the more it is bacteria based. Bacteria doubles every 20 minutes. Putting mayonnaise and tuna together and out in the heat is "a wonderful petri dish," Childers said. This is not a food that is recommended to serve outdoors.


For barbecue chicken, cooking the food thoroughly is one of the main ways to make sure it isn't full of disease. Childers recommends keeping the meat cold before it goes on the grill. Once on the grill, it needs to be cooked to about 165 degrees. Use a meat thermometer to make sure this is correct. "Don't say it 'looks cooked,'" Childerss said. As an alternative, Childers said fish is that it cooks quickly to about 155 degrees. She suggests cooking fish in foil bags. Fish can stay for about two hours in the heat before it is considered dangerous to eat, but that drops to one hour if the outside temperature is 90 degrees or above.

Baked Beans

Pettet recommends to bake baked beans at 160 degrees initially. This is because of the high protein content from bacon and other meat fat products commonly used to make the dish. Pettet recommends that the baked beans are kept at more than 140 degrees.


According to Childers, all fruit is about the same. "The less you do for a fruit the better it holds," she said. Washed whole fruits can last longer than cut up fruit salad. Fruit salad cannot last more than two hours in the heat, and one hour in extreme heat.

Dessert Items

"Pies are one of those things that people used to leave on the pie rack and eat all day," Childers said, but she doesn't recommend it. She suggests that pies not stay out more than one hour in hot weather and that they be kept in a cooler until being served. Once everyone gets a slice, the pie should go back in the cooler. Childers suggests taking cookies and brownies on outdoor eating adventures instead of pies, because they are more stable and less likely to grow bacteria in the heat.


"Dairy-based drinks are bad," Childers said. She said at barbecues and picnics, people should be drinking things like soda, water and sports drinks because they can last a much longer in the heat. Pettet said if you absolutely have to have dairy drinks, to keep as close to freezing as possible, below 40 degrees. She said to be careful not to freeze the drinks, changing the consistency of the product.

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