Packing A Safe Picnic Meal

By Kari Hartel, RD, LD
Program Coordinator, Cooking Matters, Operation Food Search

Who doesn’t love a summer picnic lunch in the park? July is “National Picnic Month” and what better way to celebrate than with a nutritious, fresh, tasty picnic lunch. A picnic is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and spend quality time with friends and family. However, dining al fresco during the hot, humid summer months in St. Louis can present challenges when it comes to keeping food safe.

Microorganisms that could potentially cause foodborne-illnesses can quickly multiply in the sweltering St. Louis summer heat and humidity. Moist high-protein and carbohydrate-rich foods that are low-acid provide the perfect breeding ground for pathogens. Many picnic-perfect foods, such as meat, cheese, dairy foods, and prepared salads, can make you sick if they’re not prepared, stored, and transported in a safe manner. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year about 1 in 6 Americans (48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne illnesses.

Here are some simple tips to keep your food safe:

  • Transport your food safely. Pack everything in coolers with ice packs and transport it in an air-conditioned vehicle rather than in the truck bed. If you’re planning to cook food at your picnic site, you’ll want to have one cooler for raw meats and poultry and a separate cooler for your beverages and other cold, already-cooked foods. Be sure to pack all raw meats and poultry in properly-secured zip-top bags.
  • If you’re taking cooked items that are eaten hot—such as casseroles—pack them in insulated containers.
  • Wash your hands and sanitize surfaces. If you’re picnicking in an area without soap and water, plan ahead and bring plenty of disinfecting hand wipes or hand sanitizer.
  • If you do plan to grill out, always make sure you cook your meats to the proper internal temperatures. Beef, pork, veal and lamb steaks and chops should reach 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Ground meats should reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Fresh or smoked ham needs to reach 145 degrees Fahrenheit. All poultry needs to be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and fish and shellfish need to reach a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • A great rule of thumb: keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Highly-perishable foods, including meats, hot dogs, poultry, cheese, cut melon, and mayonnaise should never be left out at room temperature for longer than two hours. In severe heat (temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit), such as the kind we experience here in the ‘Lou, you shouldn’t leave anything out longer than one hour.
  • Another helpful rhyme: when in doubt, throw it out. If you’re not sure how long food has been left out in the heat, throw it away. It’s not worth risking your health.
  • Of course, to make sure you’re eating a healthy picnic lunch, don’t forget to pack plenty of hydrating, fiber-filled, nutritious fruits and vegetables and drink plenty of water or other unsweetened beverages.

You Like Tomatoes – I like Tomatoes! No matter how you slice it, summer is tomato season and what better way to celebrate than to order and enjoy tomato-themed dishes at more than 50 restaurants participating in this year’s “Tomato Explosion”? This yummy restaurant campaign is in partnership with FEAST Magazine and local restaurants that feature a special tomato dish on their menus throughout the entire month of July for Operation Food Search to receive a portion of the sales.

For a list of participating “Tomato Explosion” restaurants, please visit www.OperationFoodSearch.org. Enjoy the deliciousness and the health benefits of tomatoes all month long and help us heal the hurt of hunger in our region!