Summertime Food Safety
By Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
Nothing says summer quite like outdoor picnics, potlucks and barbecues. But nothing spoils a picnic more quickly than unwelcome guests, and I don’t mean party crashers. I’m talking about food-borne bacteria that can really multiply at hot summertime temperatures, and can make your picnic foods risky to eat.
The bacteria in foods that can make you sick grow quickly at room temperature, and even faster when the thermometer climbs to 90 degrees or so. Keeping foods cold discourages the bacteria from growing - and cooking foods destroys them - so the most basic rule is this: keep hot foods hot, and keep cold foods cold.
If you’re going to carry raw meat with you so you can grill it at the park or your campsite, pack your cooler carefully. Season or marinate the meat and put it in a tightly sealed plastic container or zippered plastic bag, then keep it separated from any foods that are ready-to-eat in your cooler. You don’t want any of those raw meat juices dripping onto your fruits, veggies and side dishes. And, pack your cooler with plenty of ice or ice packs, so it stays nice and cold.
When you grill, check thick foods, like chicken pieces, to make sure they’re cooked all the way through before serving. Sometimes they cook quickly on the outside, but they’re still raw or undercooked in the middle. If I have a few hours before it’s time to grill, I like to partially cook chicken pieces in the microwave, then drop them in a zippered plastic bag with the marinade, and refrigerate. The meat cooks more quickly and evenly on the grill, and it’s less likely to be dry. Any marinade from raw meat, though, should be tossed out. If you want to use it as a sauce for your cooked foods, you need to first bring it to a boil in a saucepan in order to make it safe to eat.
Do you know the 2-2-4 rule? The rule is simply this: two hours, two inches, four days.
Two hours is how long foods can safely stay at room temperature after you’ve taken then out of the oven or off the grill, or in the case of cold foods, how long they can safely stay out of the refrigerator or cooler. The limit drops to just an hour if the outdoor temperature is 90 degrees or higher. After two hours (or one, if it’s really hot) the food should be refrigerated or frozen, so be sure to pack it up and place it back in the cooler if you’re not going right home.
The two inch rule means you want to store leftover foods in shallow containers in the refrigerator – no more than two inches thick – so they can cool evenly and quickly. If containers are too deep, it takes too long for the food in the middle to cool down.
The last rule says that you should use your refrigerated leftovers within four days - otherwise, toss ‘em out. But picnic leftovers are so good – chances are they’ll be long gone before then.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.