Summertime Food Safety


Beware of bacteria when barbecuing.

Don’t let food poisoning spoil your summertime fun! Here are some tips for keeping foods safe during warm weather.

Nothing says summer quite like outdoor picnics, potlucks and barbecues. But nothing spoils a picnic more quickly than unwelcome guests – and I’m not talking about party crashers. The other “unwelcome guests” come in the form of food-borne bacteria that can multiply quickly at hot summertime temperatures, and 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 F (32 C) 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 food storage 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 that everything stays nice and cold.

When it’s time to serve foods from the grill, check thick foods – like bone-in 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 you have a few hours before it’s time to grill, you can also partially cook chicken pieces in the microwave, then drop them in a zippered plastic bag with the marinade, and refrigerate. Since the chicken is partially cooked, it takes less time to finish it on the grill, it tends to cook more evenly, and it’s less likely to be dry.

Once your fish, meat or poultry comes off the grill, it might be tempting to dunk it back in the marinade – but don’t. Since the marinade was in contact with raw or undercooked meat, it could harbor some harmful bacteria that could cause illness.

When it comes to leftovers, an easy way to remember food storage guidelines is simple: two hours, two inches, four days – the numbers make up the “2-2-4 rule”.

Two hours is how long foods can safely stay at room temperature after you’ve taken them 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. But there’s an exception to this rule, too – the limit drops to just an hour if the outdoor temperature is 90 degrees F (32C) or higher. Once the time limit is reached, the food should be refrigerated or frozen. So, if you’re away from home, be sure to pack up your food and place it back in the cooler with your ice packs to keep them at a safe temperature.

The two inch rule means that you should store leftover foods in shallow containers – 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, you should toss them out. But picnic leftovers are pretty tasty – so chances are, they’ll be long gone before then.

Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. Susan is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.