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Food Safety at a Picnic

As part of our continuation on food safety in the kitchen, this month we’re focusing on food prepared, or partially prepared, at home and eaten away — whether it’s a backpacker’s lunch for two, a casserole to take to the church potluck supper, or a picnic feast to enjoy at the beach or park.

If you’re not traveling far and the food is nonperishable, you can pack your food in a brown paper bag, lunch box, or plastic tote. However, food containing meat, poultry, or fish, eggs and dairy products, mayonnaise or “creamy-type” dressings are very perishable and must remain thoroughly chilled until just before serving time. Do not allow these foods to remain unchilled for more than 1 hour, and to sit in direct sun.

  • When preparing picnic or potluck food, wash your hands thoroughly before starting, and again after every interruption and after handling raw fish, poultry, or meat. Avoid cross-contamination between cutting boards and knives; use a clean set for each food item, keeping your “raw — to be cooked” cutting boards separate from your “fresh or raw — not to be cooked” boards.
  • Wash the food — even fruits and vegetables — under running cold water before using. Wrap all foods separately in self-sealing plastic bags, plastic containers, etc. to avoid drippings cross-contaminating another food.
  • Keep hot foods hot. Use a pre-heated thermos or insulated dish for serving. Pack serving utensils separately and keep covered until serving time to avoid possible contact by insects.
  • Pack the cold foods directly from the refrigerator or freezer into the cooler, placing food to be kept coldest at the bottom with plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. We also pack a self-sealing plastic bag filled with ice on the top layer of the cooler. The cubes will come in handy for chilling drinks, and any that melts serves as additional ice water.
  • Once packed, don’t put the cooler into a trunk. Use a sports utility vehicle or take an extra car, if necessary, to transport the cooler(s) in the car. Once at the picnic site, place the cooler in the shade and keep the lid on.
  • If you are preparing any of the food at the picnic, such as grilling chicken, hamburgers, etc., be sure to take along disposable hand wipes to use before and after working with the food as few picnic areas will have soap and hot, running water available.
  • Fish, poultry, and meat should be thoroughly thawed before cooking and then cooked thoroughly. The center of hamburger patties should not be pink and the juices of all cooked foods should run clear. Use a clean plate when retrieving the cooked food from the grill; toss the plate that held the raw food into the trash or pack it to go home for washing..
  • Never baste fish, poultry, or meat with a marinade that was used on the raw food. Double the recipe for the marinade, reserving half for grilling time.
  • Return leftovers to the cooler as quickly as possible. In summer heat, one hour is the very maximum time food should be left unrefrigerated. Bring along an extra cooler packed with ice to replenish the melted ice in your food cooler.

Food poisoning and other food-borne illness may cause nausea, vomiting, fever, abdominal pain, headache, and diarrhea. If you are an adult, it will probably clear up by itself (follow your “sick-day” rules if you have diabetes). If the symptoms are severe or persist, contact your physician. If you suspect that a child has food poisoning or another food-borne illness, contact the child’s doctor immediately.

Attending a picnic or potluck is a fun way to spend a summer day or evening. Don’t spoil your good time by improper handling of the food.