Your Guide to Cookout and Picnic Food Safety for a Healthy Summer

Nothing ruins summer fun faster than a foodborne illness. These safety tips will ensure you enjoy cookouts, picnics, and potlucks without worry.

No one wants to get sick, especially if it means missing our on summer fun. And while food safety is important year-round, summer's heat and sun make it vitally important during grilling and picnic season. To help you keep your food safe even when you're packing a picnic basket or at a neighborhood cookout, we compiled these must-know reminders. Keep these summer food safety precautions in mind the next time you're cutting up fresh fruit for a snack, firing up the grill, or heading to a potluck.

rinsing strawberries in colander under faucet
Kritsada Panichgul

Thoroughly Wash Produce

For goodness sake, don't skip this simple step. It only takes a minute. Several of our favorite summer foods make the Dirty Dozen list of most contaminated by pesticides. Strawberries, nectarines, grapes, peaches, cherries, spinach, kale, and tomatoes are on that list and should be washed thoroughly. But that doesn't mean you only need to wash those foods. There are many opportunities during growing, picking, packing, and transporting for food to become contaminated (just think of how many people touch your produce at the grocery store). To keep produce safe, follow these pointers:

  • Store perishable produce in the refrigerator (at 40°F or below) until you're ready to use it. Always store precut fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator too.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after handling fresh produce.
  • Wash the produce before you peel it or cut through it. That way contaminants will not be transferred from your knife to the fruit or vegetable. This applies to fruits like kiwis, melons, and avocados that you don't eat the rind or peel. You're still cutting through it, so anything on the outside will be pushed into the fruit by your knife.
  • Hold the fruit or vegetable under cool running tap water, gently rubbing it as you rinse it. For firm produce, such as melons, use a clean vegetable brush to scrub the surface as you rinse.
  • Use a clean cloth or paper towel to dry the produce before using or serving it.
inserting meat thermometer into grilled patty
Blaine Moats

Grill Smart

Did summer even happen if you didn't eat food with grill marks?! Burgers, brats, hot dogs, corn on the cob, and even pizza take on bigger flavor when cooked on the grill. Keep these grilling safety tips in mind:

  • Defrost safely. Allow enough time (ideally overnight) to thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator on a plate or in a pan to catch any juices. Do not thaw meat at room temperature.
  • If you're making anything that gets marinated, always marinate meat in the fridge (and not on the counter or outside). And if you want to use some of the marinade as a sauce, set aside some before adding your meat or seafood.
  • Take the meat thermometer with you. Use a meat thermometer to make sure your foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature and don't partially cook or grill food with the intent of finishing the cooking later.
  • Don't get the meat out until you're ready to grill. If you're grilling in batches, keep the food not being grilled in the fridge or cooler.
  • Don't forget clean utensils and platters. Always have clean plates and utensils to place the cooked food on (different from the ones you used to bring out the raw meat; you don't want any cross-contamination).
garden party spread with food dishes
Robert Brinson

Plan a Safe Potluck

Eating outside with family and friends is one of summer's pleasures. Follow these tips at your picnic, potluck, barbecue, or garden party:

  • Follow the two-hour rule. Never serve food that's been out of the refrigerator, off the stove or grill, or out of the oven longer than two hours. (If it's over 90°F outside, that two-hour rule becomes a one-hour rule.) For safety's sake, follow the old adage of keeping hot food hot and cold food cold. Harmful bacteria thrive at temps between 40°F and 140°F.
  • Make side dishes that don't need refrigeration. The easiest way to make a potluck-safe dish is to avoid sides like seven-layer salads that contain ingredients that need refrigeration (hard-cooked eggs, cheese, sour cream, etc).
  • Keep cold foods on ice. If you've gotta have that creamy macaroni salad at your potluck, keep it on ice: Set your serving bowl inside a larger bowl filled with ice to keep the food temperature under 40°F.
  • Keep hot foods hot. When serving hot foods at a potluck, keep them at 140°F or higher by serving in chafing dishes or slow cookers. When toting hot foods to a party, use heavy-duty foil or a heavy towel to wrap the cooking dish; then place in an insulated container.
  • If you can, keep beverages in one cooler and food in another. That way, when picnickers are digging for a drink, they're not opening and closing the cooler with food in it, which can let the cold air out and make your picnic foods warmer than they should be. And in general, limit the number of times you open your cooler so everything stays cold longer.

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