6 Picnic Food Safety Rules Experts Want Everyone To Follow (During COVID and Always)

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61

Picnicking in the park is one of those sweet summer activities we look forward to all year. The sun is shining, the rosé is flowing, and the snack spread is strong. What a downright delightful way to spend an afternoon, right?

While you should 100 percent get some summer picnic plans on the books, you also want to make sure food is being served in a way that isn't going to cause anyone to get sick—especially when noshing on highly perishable dishes (love you forever, potato salad) that have been sitting out in the hot sun for hours on end. Anytime there's a combination of food, sweltering summer temps, and communal nibbles, there are a few simple rules of thumb to keep in mind.

Experts In This Article
  • Benjamin Chapman, PhD, Benjamin Chapman, PhD is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University and the host of the podcast Food Safety Talk.
  • Jeff Nelken, MA, food safety/HACCP expert
  • Lisa Yakas, Lisa Yakas is a microbiologist and consumer safety expert at NSF International, a global public health organization.

Here, three food safety experts highlight the important picnic food safety rules to keep in mind—including if shared foods are still safe in a COVID-19 era. The good news is that even though the safety professionals are well-aware of the myriad ways germs can manifest at communal gatherings, all three assured us that they still love a good picnic (and that you should, too).

6 picnic food safety rules to keep in mind, according to experts

1. Practice safe food prep

Jeff Nelken, a food safety expert and HACCP management instructor, says picnic safety doesn't start at the park; it starts at home. "You have to consider how people are preparing the food they're bringing to the picnic and if they're making it in a safe way," he says. That means having clean hands, not using the same cutting boards or utensils for raw meat as other foods, and washing produce correctly. "Some people will fill their sink up and throw everything in there, but that's not the safest way to rinse," Nelken says. Neither, he says, is letting the basket part of a colander sit inside the sink. The best ones won't touch the bottom, like this one from LiveFresh ($22).

Besides prepping food safely at home, Nelken says you always want to be sure to transport it safely to your picnic, too. That means if the park has a grill that you plan on using, raw meat—including burger patties, chicken breasts, fish, even alternative options like Beyond Burgers—should be stored completely separate from everything else. "Raw meat should really have its own separate cooler in case it leaks," Nelken says. Better yet, he recommends pre-cooking your meat at home at 255°F and then throwing it on the grill at the park when you're ready to eat. Less time standing over the grill at the park means more time with your friends, too.

2. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot

This food rule is a biggie and one all three food safety experts underline. "The temperature danger zone is 40°F to 140°F. In other words, you need to keep cold food below 40°F and hot food above 140°F," says Lisa Yakas, a microbiologist and consumer safety expert at NSF International, a global public health organization. If food sits in the 'danger zone' too long, that's when harmful pathogens can start to form. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), any span of time longer than two hours is considered unsafe—but in summertime temperatures that exceed 90°F, food should not be left out more than one hour.

Ben Chapman, PhD, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University and the host of the podcast Food Safety Talk, says you especially want to be mindful of foods made with mayonnaise—not because of the mayo itself, but the way it interacts with foods it's commonly paired with. "Once we cook foods like potatoes or eggs, they release a little water, and adding in the mayo can add more extra water. It's the water that's really the issue because bacteria need water to grow," he says. Keeping your egg salad or potato salad cool will prevent pathogens from growing in the water.

Nelken does say that mayo that's store-bought has been chemically altered to make it safer (made with vinegar, which prevents pathogen growth), but it's still something to be mindful of. "No matter how safe mayonnaise is made to be, when you mix it with protein—like for tuna or chicken salad—it changes the chemistry making it easier for bacteria to grow," he says. But again, so long as you keep it chilled below 40°F, it's a non-issue.

"Just keep [mayonnaise-based foods] refrigerated or in a cooler until you are ready to eat," Yakas says. "Once you serve the food, don’t leave them sitting out for longer than an hour or two at max—especially if it is a hot day. If you want to keep the food out for longer, just fill a tray or bowl with a bed of ice cubes and serve the dish on ice."

Nelken and Dr. Chapman both recommend bringing a food thermometer to your picnic so you can really keep en eye on the food temperatures. Sounds elaborate, but it's quite the opposite—using an instant read thermometer is a fuss-free way to avoid a guessing game that you'd really rather not lose. (BTW, this gadget will help you be absolutely certain that you've seared your grilled chicken to perfection, too.)

3. Pack your cooler properly so your cold food actually stays cold

Since keeping cold food cold is so important, Dr. Chapman has a separate tip on how exactly to make sure it's done correctly. "Cold food should be kept in a cooler that's covered, out of direct sunlight, and packed with ice packs," he says. At the picnic, avoid opening the cooler excessively to keep the ingredients inside cold for as long as possible (read: you may want to pack bevvies in their own bag, as those tend to be a hot commodity). When your cooler is fully sealed, less cold air can leak out.

Nelken also reiterates the importance of storing raw meat separately from everything else. This means that if you if you plan on having a cook out, think ahead by making sure you have two coolers on hand so that one can be dedicated just to meat. You'll also need to stock up on plenty of ice packs so you can layer them inside both. (Layering and packing tightly is key, as air pockets inside the cooler will accelerate the ice's melting process.)

4. Choose vinegar-based sides over ones made with dairy

"Cold dishes with a vinegar-based dressing are a little more forgiving than a dairy-based food," Yakas says. This is because the vinegar is acidic, which helps prevent the growth of pathogens. (That's one reason why mayo producers have started adding it to their products, as Nelken pointed out.) Consider this the perfect chance to try out a vegan recipe you might not have otherwise considered. Who knew food safety was a plant-based living perk!

5. Have dedicated cooking and eating utensils specifically for raw meat

One mistake all three experts say they see people making all the time is using the same spatula, tongs, or other utensil to place raw meat on the grill to serve it when it's done cooking. "This makes me cringe because you are immediately cross-contaminating your finished food with raw juices," Yakas says. "Sometimes, someone will even place the cooked meat on the same plate that they used to carry the raw meat out to the grill—not a good idea."

Anything used to prep raw meat should be dedicated solely to that. No exceptions.

6. Avoid 'unnecessarily communal' foods

Yakas points out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) haven't found that COVID-19 is spread through food, but even so, none of the food safety experts are big fans of everyone putting their hands in the same bag of Ruffles or double-dipping in the hummus. It's just not worth it. "You have to really trust that you're friends washed their hands well if you're going to share food," Nelken says.

"Regardless of the pandemic, communal dips are never a great idea, especially in large groups," Yakas says. "Do you really want dozens of possibly dirty hands dipping into the guacamole? Or double-dipping? The virus that causes COVID-19 might not be transmitted through food, but E. coli, Salmonella and other nasty germs certainly are." Sharing a platter of sandwiches or a cheese and fruit platter is totally fine, but do your best to avoid serving dishes that require excessive hand (and, ahem, saliva) contact.

In fact, Dr. Chapman says it's potentially even worse for your friends to get into your food than bugs. If a fly lands on your picnic spread, it's typically NBD, he says. (Granted that fly isn't the next iteration of a murder hornet or whatever horrifying creation the world wants to throw at us next. We'll save that subject for a separate occasion.) "Bugs in your food suck, but they're not going to kill you," he says.

Keep these tips in mind and you can dig in at your picnic without worrying if you're accidentally making yourself or your loved ones sick. Just don't forget to pass around the hand sanitizer, keep your cold food cold and your hot food hot, avoid cross-contamination—and keep your eye out for double dippers.

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