Nutrition Column – Plan a Safe Picnic

It’s picnic time in Colorado! There’s something special about packing a picnic and heading to the park or hills to enjoy being in the great outdoors.

Whether your picnic is an elaborate gourmet affair for 20 or a simple packed lunch for two, the last thing you want to bring back home with you is foodborne illness. Picnics are notorious breeding grounds for bugs, including the microorganisms that cause foodborne illness. With a little knowledge and pre-planning, however, outdoor picnics can be enjoyable and safe.

When planning a picnic or cook-out, make a list of items to pack. Your menu will dictate what to bring. For example, if you’re planning to cook raw meats, poultry or fish, remember the rules to prevent cross-contamination.

Raw animal products can be a source of unwanted bacteria. Cooking meat kills pathogens that may be present. Bring a meat thermometer along and check to be sure that hamburger patties have reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees F before removing from the grill. For grilled chicken, the recommended internal end-point temperature is 170 degrees F.

Take care to make sure that all utensils, cutting boards and hands that have contacted raw meat are washed thoroughly before contacting other foods. It’s a good idea to pack duplicate sets of utensils and cutting boards and to bring along an ample supply of moist towelettes for hand washing. A makeshift wash station can be set up using two plastic tubs – one with soapy water and the other with clean rinse water. A spray bottle filled with soapy water also is easy to bring along.  

When packing a cooler, use one that is well insulated and has an adequate ice source. Ice blocks, cubes or refreezable ice packs all work well. Package raw fish, meat or poultry carefully so that juices won’t leak into the cooler. Also, make sure that items to be packed are well chilled before placing them in the cooler. Keep the cooler in the shade, and make sure foods are not sitting out, either before or after cooking, for more than two hours. This time window is shortened to only one hour if it’s hotter than 85 degrees outside.

Remember that pathogens can be present on produce. All fruits and vegetables, including melons, berries and leafy greens, should be washed well under running water in your kitchen before packing in the cooler.

When cooking, be careful to avoid cross-contamination. Different utensils and serving platters should be used for raw and cooked foods. Make sure that everything that touches food is clean. Also, don’t even think about using any of the marinade that touched raw meat as a basting sauce or dip for cooked meat. Rather, reserve out a portion of the marinade recipe for use as a sauce or dip, then spread the rest of the recipe on the raw product.

Avoid pre-cooking meats partially, to be finished later on the grill. Pre-cooked foods should be cooked thoroughly, placed immediately in a refrigerator, brought down to a cool temperature, and then packed in the cooler. Remember, unwelcome food pathogens multiply quickly between 40 and 140 degrees F, a window of temperature warmer than a refrigerator but cooler than hot serving temperature.

All utensils, cookware and grills should be cleaned thoroughly after use. To sanitize cutting boards, wash with warm, soapy water, rinse, then dip in a solution of one teaspoon of bleach in one quart of lukewarm water.

If there are leftovers, quickly put them away in a cooler with ice. If meats, salads or other perishable foods have set out for more than two hours on a cool day or for more than one hour on a hot day, then it’s best to follow the maxim: "When in doubt, throw it out."

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension