FEATURE | Posted July 23, 2015

Checklist for packing a perfect picnic

Tips on grilling meats, keeping foods cool to avoid food poisoning

Family outdoor meal © iStockphoto
Avoid inviting bacteria to your picnic, barbecue or hike by following easy food-safety tips.

By Marie Barone and Melinda Gong, registered dietitians at UC Davis Health System

It's summer, which means the sun is shining and outdoor eating is at its peak. People are spending warm days picnicking in parks, snacking on boats or barbecuing in their backyard. A day or so later, unfortunately, some may also spend time feeling ill.

Classic signs of foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning, include stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and flu-like symptoms. While foodborne illness is usually a mere inconvenience for a day or two, for older adults, infants, children and pregnant women, it can be dangerous.

But there’s no reason to invite bacteria to your picnic, hike or other outdoor meals. With reasonable care, you can avoid most foodborne illnesses.

Choosing perfect picnic foods:

  • Keep cold foods like cheese, open condiment containers, and cut fruits and vegetables at a temperature of 40 degrees F or below.
  • Avoid packing meat, seafood, mayonnaise, eggs, milk and other dairy products, as they have the greatest danger of spoiling. Bring more travel-friendly foods such as bread, crackers, cheese, peanut butter, pretzels, vegetables or chips with salsa.
  • Consider cookies, cakes, fruit-filled pies, strawberries, watermelon and other summer fruits for dessert instead of cream or custard-filled sweets. Condiments like jam, mustard, ketchup and pickles or relish are fine.

More food-safety tips

  • Visit foodsafety.gov
  • Contact the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline at
    1-888-674-6854.

Safe food-preparation techniques:

  • Avoid keeping foods out of the refrigerator too long before they're cooked, as that's when any germs already on food or introduced during preparation can multiply.
  • Wash hands frequently and keep work surfaces and utensils clean.
  • Use a separate cutting board (preferably plastic) and utensils for meats to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables well before preparing or cutting, especially melons which can have bacteria on the skin.

Traveling with food safely:

  • Pack hot and cold foods separately. Keep cold foods in the fridge until it is time to leave, and then transport in an insulated cooler with ice or ice packs. You'll need about one quarter of the space for the ice., and remember that a block of ice will last longer than ice chips or cubes.
  • Put the cooler in the air conditioned car rather than in the hot trunk.
  • Cook foods close to your departure time, then transfer directly from the oven to the car and consume within one hour.
  • Allow cold dishes such as casseroles or pasta salads cooked in advance to first chill thoroughly in the refrigerator before packing for transport.
  • Consider using small containers as they chill faster and allow you to set out portions as needed.
  • Keep the cooler in the shade at your destination, and use a separate cooler for cold drinks to avoid frequent opening and closing of the one containing perishable items. At the beach, partially bury the coolers in the sand, cover them with towels or blankets, and use an umbrella for extra shade.

Grilling meats: temperature matters

  • Keep meat safe by leaving raw meat packaged in the cooler until it is time to cook, and then always cook until the proper internal temperature is reached.
  • Never partially cook the meat at home and finish grilling it at your destination. Half-cooked meat is a recipe for bacterial growth.
  • Video: Grilling chicken and meats safely with UC Davis food-safety expert Christine Bruhn.

  • When marinating meat, remember to dispose of the marinade that was used with the raw meat, and pack along fresh marinade to use for basting while grilling. Then transfer cooked meat to clean plates that have not been contaminated with the raw meat or its marinade.
  • Throw away perishable food that has been left outside for longer than one hour in hot weather. Food that has been put away promptly should be safe if there is still ice in the cooler when you get home and the food has an internal temperature below 40 degrees F.
  • If you feel a picnic isn’t a picnic without deli chicken and potato salad, consider buying these perishable items at the last moment at a grocery store near the picnic site and be sure to consume within one-to-two hours’ time.

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