Q&A: Picnic Safety

set up for a picnic on the beach in the evening
July 14, 2018 (Updated: July 3, 2019)
Lily Moran

I love eating outdoors. What meal wouldn’t be better when paired with fresh air and rays of sunshine? But when you take your meals outside, you open the door to a few safety risks – some of which you may not consider a risk at all.

Here are some common questions about safety considerations when eating outside.

What are common picnic safety risks?

Contamination is the biggest risk and it can happen a few ways. Raw meat is the number one culprit. It can contaminate other foods in the same cooler if not stored properly. And it can contaminate the entire picnic area if not handled or cooked properly.

Piggy-backing off that, germs are often prevalent at picnics because, unlike your home, there usually isn’t a sink with soap and water readily available.

People often underestimate how long they’ve left food exposed to the sun and heat. Whenever you’re outside in summer, anywhere in the United States, you’re sure to be in the bacterial danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Food should not stay at that temperature more than 2 hours, so even if the picnic goes all day, you need to put everything on ice or on burners.

What should I pack for an ideal picnic?

That depends on a lot of things. Where is your picnic? Are you eating on your back porch? A park with tables and grills? A secluded spot in the woods? Are there trash cans, running water, bathrooms, etc.? The answers to these questions determine what I pack and how I pack it. For example, I don’t pack a four-course meal if I have to walk a bit to a picnic spot. But if I’m meeting friends at a local park, we pack a bigger spread.

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That said, here are some general food packing tips:

  • Put raw meat at the bottom of the cooler or in another cooler entirely. In addition, put meat in a sealed bag or container so it can’t leak.
  • Pack refrigerated food last and everything else first – tablecloths, silverware, chairs, non-perishable food, and so on.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before packing them. It also helps to chop them at home first, too.
  • Use ice or ice packs even if you aren’t going very far.

Simply put, be realistic about where you are going and how long you plan to be there.

What should I consider when preparing and cooking food?

Handling food safely is one of my biggest concerns. Wash your hands before, during and after preparing and cooking food. When cooking raw meat, use a meat thermometer to know if it’s fully cooked. And do not – I repeat, do NOT – place cooked meat back on the same platter where it was raw just minutes ago.

When you’re finished eating, pack the remaining food back into coolers immediately so it doesn’t spoil or attract insects… or bigger wildlife!

Food aside, what else should I consider?

Sometimes people get so caught up packing a perfect picnic that they forget they are eating outside. Environmentally safe sunscreen, natural bug repellent, and a first aid kit are staples for all of my picnics. Same with soap, a gallon of clean water, a few washcloths for washing your hands and dishes.

Finally, picnics aren’t just for eating outside. They are for being outside. Bring some outdoor games and comfortable shoes to go for a walk. Get off those chairs!

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