Al fresco dining is one of the great pleasures of warm weather. Whether you’re hosting a neighborhood barbecue or an intimate dinner party on your deck, outdoor dining is a great way to savor good food, company and the great outdoors. To ensure your meals are safe and enjoyable, it’s important to know how to prepare, transport and store food for outdoor eating.
The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) offers some advice for safely handling food when you’re dining outdoors this summer:
Warm weather brings a bounty of fresh produce, and a trip to the local farmers market can make a nice addition to your outdoor meal. Food safety starts in the field. It’s important to get to know the growers selling produce at your local farm stand, and ask about their farming practices. How do they keep their products free from bacterial pathogens and other contaminants? Farmers may also have great tips for storing produce, testing for ripeness and even ways to prepare the fruits and veggies they sell.
IFT spokesperson and food safety expert, Don Schaffner, PhD, says that when you’re purchasing produce, make sure it’s free of mold, bruises or blemishes where bacterial pathogens can grow. Many grocery stores offer freshly cut, packaged produce for customers seeking nutritious convenience foods. Freshly cut vegetables and fruit need proper temperature control to prevent the growth of bacteria that cause foodborne illness.
Before preparing food, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Make sure all prep utensils such as cutting boards, dishes and countertops are clean before preparing each food item.
Dirt, dust and pathogenic microbes can linger on produce. It’s important to wash fresh produce before consuming it. The only exception is are pre-bagged salads and leafy greens, as experts advise that additional washing of ready-to-eat green salads is not likely to enhance safety. Thoroughly washing in cold water will suffice for most fruits and vegetables, but some types of produce require special handling. Wash spinach or salad greens in a bowl of water and rinse them gently to remove dirt and other contaminants.
Give extra attention to fruits with stems, such as apples, pears and peaches. You may be tempted to forego washing fruit with a rind, since you won’t be eating the rind. But, it’s still important to wash oranges, avocados, melons, cantaloupe, etc. – pathogens can linger in unwashed crevices and transfer to your hands or the knife you use to cut the fruit. In addition, wash items you’ll peel – such as carrots and cucumbers – for the same reason.
If you’ll be grilling at home, remember to always marinate meat in the refrigerator, never on the kitchen counter or outdoors. Discard any extra marinade that’s touched raw meat.
Grill food thoroughly, using a thermometer to ensure the proper internal temperature: 145 F for steaks and fish, 160 F for pork, hot dogs and hamburgers, and 165 F for poultry. Keep finished meats hot until you serve by moving them to the side of the grill rack, away from the coals or highest flame on your gas grill. Avoid cross contamination by using separate serving plates and utensils for different meats and vegetables.
If you’ll be grilling away from home – in a park, tailgating at a sporting event or on a camping trip – consider purchasing pre-formed patties for burgers and pre-cut poultry. This minimizes the amount of handling meat requires and can help minimize the risk of bacteria and cross contamination.
A picnic in the park can be great fun for everyone, but it’s important to assure your food arrives safely along with your family and guests. Follow smart food packing guidelines. Keep meats, including lunch meats and raw meats, cheeses and condiments cold in insulated, soft-sided bags or coolers with freezer gel packs.
Food needs to be stored at 40 F or colder to reduce the risk of pathogen growth, so limit the number of times you open the cooler. Never allow food to sit for more than two hours at temperatures below 90 F, and no more than an hour when temperatures exceed 90 F. Throw away food that’s been sitting out too long.
Securely package raw meat, seafood and poultry to ensure the juices don’t contaminate other foods. Pack only the amount of perishable food that you think will be eaten. Beverages and perishable foods should travel in separate containers and coolers, especially if you’ll be transporting raw meat.
When it’s time to go home, don’t reuse packaging material that has touched raw meats or meat juices. Make sure perishable leftovers stay cold on the trip home. Avoid taking home uncooked leftovers.