Danger Zone: Keep Your Food Bacteria-Free


I’m sure many of you are still planning outdoor festivities of some sort, and that usually involves food. Whether you’re having a backyard barbecue, a tailgate party, or a picnic in the park, it’s smart to keep a few food-safety tips in mind so that no one ends the weekend on an unhappy note.

Tips for grillers
The great thing about grilling is that it’s so darn easy. And it lends itself to kicking back with a nice bottle of rosé or a few Hefeweizens. Sometimes that combo can lead to a few lapses in food safety though. Stick with these basics and you won’t go astray.

1. Keep it cool: Don’t leave your steaks sizzling in the sun for hours before you’re going to cook them. Keep your meat in the fridge (which should be set below 40°F) until about 10–15 minutes before you’re ready to cook it. It does need to warm up a bit so that it cooks evenly, but keeping it outside till you’re ready to cook is a bad idea. Bacteria starts to multiply when food is in the Danger Zone: 40°-140°.

2. Avoid marinade mishaps: You’ve made an amazing tequila-lime marinade for your shrimp, and you want to serve some along with the cooked shrimp. Do not use the marinade that the shrimp was taking a bath in. Instead, make a double batch of marinade and use half of it to marinate the shrimp, and the other half (which should go in the fridge till ready to serve) for serving. One more word on marinating: Do it in the fridge, not on the counter or outside where bacteria can have a field day.

3. Cook it right: I know, you’ve been grilling for years and no one has gotten sick yet, so what’s the big deal? Well, you never know if this batch of ground beef is going to be the one with E. coli in it, so better safe than sorry. This is especially true when you’re cooking for people who are immunocompromised, like kids, the elderly, people with cancer, or pregnant women.

A meat thermometer with a digital probe is the best thing to do to keep all the juices intact in your meat. Ground meat needs to reach 160°, chicken breasts should be 165° (though to get rid of the pinkness, you may want to go higher), and fish should be 145° and totally opaque inside. If you take the temp and it’s not quite there yet, make sure to clean the thermometer with either hot, soapy water or another disinfectant before sticking it back in the meat.

4. Change plates: One last thing. If you start with your raw burgers or shish kebabs on a plate, you’ll need to exchange the plate with the meat juices on it for a clean one to transfer your cooked food to. If you’re not at home and plates are nowhere in sight, clean foil or a paper plate will do the trick.

Pointers for picnic time
These tips apply whether you’re car camping, spreading out a blanket at the state park, or getting a few sweet hours of sunshine at the beach.

1. Keep it hot…or cold: Hot foods need to stay hot and cold ones need to stay cold. It’s all about staying out of the Danger Zone. Hot stuff needs to be kept above 140° and cold items should be below 40°. Foods with a protein source (chicken salad, tuna salad, meats, cheese, and salads with eggs) are especially vulnerable.

Get a cooler or an insulated carrying bag. Attractive ones can be found pretty much everywhere these days, but I like the ones from Thermos.

If you’re only packing things that you want to keep cold, put the beverages on the bottom, and then stack your plastic food containers on top of them. If there are any spaces, fill those with freezer packs. Those should keep you perfectly chilled for up to two hours. Of course, if you’re driving in a car with no air conditioning or sitting in direct sunlight on hot sand, you’ll probably have a meltdown sooner than that.

2. Take what you need: When you’re ready to eat, dish out servings for everyone, and then put the main container back into cold storage. This rule is especially tough to follow at large gatherings, especially with kids. Little hands will try to dip into the cooler all day long. If you have little ones, dedicate a cooler for just drinks and snacks.

3. Mind your melons: Lots of people bring a juicy watermelon to picnics and then slice into them once they’re at their lunch spot. That’s fine—just make sure to wash the rind before you pack up your melon. Bacteria can lurk on the rind and get a free ride into the fruit when you slice into it. For more on melons, click here.

4. Chuck the leftovers: So your in-laws only ate half the potato salad you made. I hate throwing food away too, but if it’s been sitting out at room temp for more than two hours, you’ve got to ditch it. After a day outside, almost everything will need to get pitched except for sealed non-refrigerated beverages and packaged foods (chips, pretzels, cookies). Do Fido a favor and don’t unload your plate on him either—he can get sick too.

Whew—that’s it! And look on the bright side, that bottle of rosé is at least one thing you won’t need to worry about.

By Frances Largeman-Roth, RD