By Kristi Harty
There is nothing quite like a picnic in the park -- or a picnic in your backyard, for that matter. When the sun is shining and the weather is warm, no one feels like cooking, and the idea of dining outdoors seems endlessly appealing.
Enjoying a picnic lunch in the great outdoors can be wonderful, but only if you prepare and store the food safely. You do not want your outdoor dining experience ruined, and foodborne illnesses are worse than even the most determined ants. Here are some timely tips for keeping your food, and your guests, safe at your next picnic.
1. Choose your menu wisely. Some picnic foods are better than others, so think about what you plan to serve and how to keep it safe. Foods that spoil quickly and those that are highly temperature sensitive are best left at home, where you have more control over the dining environment.
2. Consider plant-based and dairy-free alternatives. From deviled eggs to potato salad, many picnic staples are heavy on the mayo, and it does not take much for that egg-laden concoction to go bad. If you want your picnic staples to be more stable, consider egg-free alternatives to milk, meat, and mayonnaise.
3. Pack your cooler with care. How you pack your picnic cooler matters, so keep the foods that need to stay cold the most on the bottom. You can keep the temperature more stable by adding ice packs under, around, and on top of those highly sensitive foods.
4. Keep the cooler closed as much as possible. When you arrive with your cooler in hand, everyone will want to take a peek at what’s inside, but opening and closing the lid can increase temperature variations and contribute to spoilage and even foodborne illnesses.
5. Wrap raw meat and chicken securely in plastic wrap and keep them away from other foods. Cross-contamination can happen quickly, so keep your fresh meat separate from anything that will be eaten raw. That includes salad greens, fruit salad, and anything else that will not need to be cooked.
6. Rinse your produce before you pack it. Fresh produce can harbor germs and other contaminants, so wash it carefully before you pack your picnic basket. Wash all produce, including salad greens, under running water and allow it to air dry before you leave.
7. Set up a hand-washing station. Keeping those little (and big) hands clean can be challenging at a picnic, but you can make it easier by setting up a hand-washing station. If you have access to running water, you can add a bottle of antibacterial soap. If no water is available, you can use packaged wipes to keep hands clean and sanitary.
8. Marinate meats in the refrigerator. There is nothing like a tender steak on the grill, and marinating the meat can give you that delicious sear. You want to sear safely, however, so do your marinating in the fridge instead of the counter.
9. Check doneness with a meat thermometer. You might be tempted to eyeball it when cooking steaks, burgers, and chicken, but one mistake could have devastating consequences. If you will be cooking meat, chicken, or fish, make sure you have access to an accurate meat thermometer.
10. Send your guests home with tasty leftovers -- and a personal ice pack. Picnic food tastes just as good the next day, so pack it safely on ice before the festivities are over.
Picnics are popular in the summer months, and there is something truly special about dining in the great outdoors. Whether you are trying to impress your date, reconnecting with your spouse, or just having fun with friends and family, there is nothing like an assortment of delicious picnic foods.
If you want to enjoy your picnic without taking undue risk, following a few basic food safety tips is a good place to start. The safety steps listed above can help you and your guests enjoy a delicious and stress-free picnic.