Essential Food Safety Tips for Picnics and Barbecues

Smiling neighbors around potluck table in sunny park
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Every year, more than 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur in the United States. The number of people suffering from food poisoning in the United States and other industrialized countries increases by 30 percent each year.

Food-borne illness usually results in nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever caused by bacteria that are lurking on foods and dining surfaces. Symptoms can be fairly mild or quite severe, and they are more likely to affect babies, pregnant women, and elderly people.

When food safety is ignored at a picnic or barbecue by leaving perishable food out in warm weather, the bacteria flourish and threaten to make everyone sick.

Keep unwanted microscopic bullies from crashing your outdoor party by following basic food safety practices. Make sure foods are kept cold or hot, and raw meats are separated from cooked or ready-to-serve foods. Everyone needs to wash their hands and use clean serving utensils.

You also need to pay attention to how long your dishes sit on the picnic table. Bacteria grow best between 40 and 140 degrees. Most of the food you serve at your picnic will only be safe on the table for two hours and, if the air temperature is over 90 degrees, food becomes unsafe after only one hour. Once leftovers have been on the table that long, don't keep them—throw them away.

Follow the rules of food safety and cleanliness outdoors just the same as in your kitchen and keep foodborne illnesses from spoiling a lovely outdoor event. Here are the most important things to know:

Keep Cold Foods Cold Until They are Served. ​

If you are at home, you can use the refrigerator. But for a picnic in the park, bring coolers with plenty of ice or freezer packs. Use one cooler for ready-to-serve foods and beverages and another for any uncooked meat.

Pasta salads and potato salads are picnic staples. ​

Contrary to common belief, mayonnaise is not the culprit that causes spoilage. The bacteria prefer the eggs, potatoes, or other ingredients. Make sure your salad is kept cold until it is time to eat. Serve only the amount of salad that will be consumed within one hour, and store the rest in the cooler. If you need more, make sure to use a clean serving dish and spoon; don't reuse the ones that have been sitting on the table.

Fresh Fruits

Fruits with thick coverings, such as watermelons and apples, will keep for several days at room temperature. Once they are cut, treat them like other perishable foods. If they are not eaten within one to two hours, discard them.


Use insulated containers that will maintain that temperature, or keep foods warm in the oven or slow cooker. Casseroles should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees and held at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Fried Chicken

Hot fried chicken should be served and eaten within one or two hours after cooking or purchasing. Cold fried chicken needs to be kept below 40 degrees until it is served, just like other chilled foods.


Rare beef can be cooked to 140 degrees. However, hamburgers should always be cooked to 165 degrees. Ground meat has more surface area than steaks or chops and should always be cooked to a higher temperature. Poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Hot dogs and other pre-cooked meats should be grilled to 165 degrees. Bring a meat thermometer along to test as you cook.

All raw meat and poultry should be thawed and kept cold until you are ready to grill. Meat can be partially cooked beforehand to decrease grilling time. However, it needs to be treated just like raw meat because bacteria will still be present until it is fully cooked. Don't grill frozen meat or poultry as it's hard to cook evenly and safely.

Pack clean platters and utensils for serving grilled meats. Bring a separate box or plastic bag to hold dishes that have held raw meats until you bring them back home for cleaning. Better yet, use disposable trays and plastic containers to transport your raw meats, and throw them away after the barbecue.

Picnic Tips

Not all foods need special handling for a picnic, barbecue or tailgating party. Cookies, bread, rolls, and crackers can safely be kept at any temperature—just keep them covered for freshness. Condiments such as ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard are acidic, so they are really not a problem for a picnic. Keep jar covers on, or use squeeze bottles.

Bring spray cleaners, soap, and water (or hand sanitizer), paper towels, cloths, and napkins. Wash tables or use fresh tablecloths. Clean the grill before cooking.

If you need to use insecticides to kill mosquitoes, flies, and other unfriendly pests, spray the picnic area before you bring the food, plates, and utensils. Spray downwind from yourself, and let the spray settle before you unpack.

Don't let guests serve themselves with the forks and spoons that they have used for eating. Keep clean serving utensils for each serving dish.

Have guests wash their hands or use hand sanitizers and wipes to reduce the spread of bacteria from person to person. Handwashing is crucial when you serve foods that are grabbed ​from a bowl like chips or pretzels.

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