Top Tips and Recipes for Picnic Food Safety
Nothing spoils the fond memory of eating outdoors faster than a bout of food poisoning. With 15 recipes for summer-friendly foods.
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Grilled Orange and Smoked Paprika Brined Pork Chops with Basil Chimichurri and the Yummly Smart Thermometer. Photograph by Brittany Conerly
When I was growing up, I loved picnics on the beach. They didn’t happen often, but at least once a summer my dad would lug this huge metal cooler onto the sand. We’d spend the day splashing around, sunbathing (oy), and emptying the cooler, grabbing drinks and sandwiches and fruit until there was nothing left, the ice packs had melted, and the sun was starting to set.
I’m amazed we never got sick, to be honest — the 70s wasn’t exactly a big decade for being careful about things like food poisoning. And the bacteria that can make you sick grow faster in warm weather. Now, whether I’m planning to pack a picnic or give my grill a workout, I pay attention to a handful of guidelines that help to prevent foodborne illness. And I make sure to use delicious recipes that meet those guidelines.
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BBQ and picnic food safety tips
For outdoor summer eating, my main goal is to prevent the growth of pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli. The following principles apply for summer cooking in general.
1. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold
Whether you’re grilling up chicken breasts or picnicking on pasta salad, make sure all perishable foods spend no more than two hours in the “Danger Zone” between 40°F and 140°F, where bacteria thrives. On days when the temperature soars above 90°F, cut that to one hour. So if you’re picnicking:
Pack food in an insulated cooler with plenty of ice packs or gel packs.
Have a separate cooler for drinks, since people tend to grab them more often.
Keep the food cooler closed as much as possible at the picnic site, to hold it at the right temperature.
Serve the perishables, then put the leftovers back in the cooler as soon as possible. Anything that’s out for longer than two hours (or one hour on hot days) should get thrown away.
2. Avoid cross-contamination
That means you should:
Pack raw foods and cooked foods in separate coolers, or at least in well-wrapped, separate containers.
Throw away marinades or sauces that have touched raw meat or seafood.
Use different utensils for raw and cooked foods.
Grab a fresh plate for cooked meat coming off the grill.
Never reuse a cutting board that’s had raw meat or seafood on it.
3. Make sure meat is cooked thoroughly
This is especially important if meat has been mechanically tenderized or prepackaged in marinade. That’s because tenderizing or cutting the meat can drive bacteria from the surface into the meat. Use a meat thermometer or instant-read thermometer to be sure.
Pieces of beef, pork, lamb, and veal (like steaks and chops) should reach at least 145°F with a three-minute rest.
Ground meats should reach 160°F.
Poultry of any kind, whole or ground, should hit 165°F.
4. Have a method for cleaning hands
Got running water for handwashing? Awesome. Wash hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after you touch food, especially raw meat. If you’re not near a sink, bring along moist disposable towelettes. Hand sanitizer will work in a pinch, but make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol.
5. Clean cutting boards, utensils, and the grill thoroughly
Seriously. Keeping things clean could save you (or your loved ones) from some deeply unpleasant aftereffects. To clean grill grates, fire up the grill until it’s good and hot, then brush thoroughly with a wire brush to remove the debris — or, in a pinch, some balled-up aluminum foil does the trick.
Recipes for fun, safe summer meals
Nobody wants to spend a ton of time worrying whether recipes might accidentally lead to food poisoning. Observe the guidelines above, and any of these tasty options should work just fine.
Perfect picnic mains
My must-have attributes for picnic food: It must be portable (duh), easy to eat with your hands, and best served cold.
Cold fried chicken is my ultimate picnic food. This classic version has you add a spicy kick (though you can leave it out), and includes plenty of tips and tricks to ensure maximum crunch. I’ll echo one specific tip that extends to serving it cold: Rather than draining the chicken on paper towels, put a cooling rack on a rimmed baking sheet and transfer the chicken directly to it. Let it cool completely before refrigerating, or steam may make the coating soggy.
This 15-minute recipe is so simple, you can practically assemble the sandwiches with your eyes closed. Smashed avocado, fresh mozzarella, juicy tomatoes, and basil leaves pile onto toasted sourdough. It’s perfect for some spur-of-the-moment dining al fresco.
If you’re going to a potluck picnic (or just feeding a large family), making one giant sandwich and cutting it into portions seems like a no-brainer. This particular one is a vegetarian version of a classic New Orleans dish: layers of roasted vegetables, tapenade, pickled peppers, and cheese, wrapped and pressed in the fridge to let all those flavors meld.
Safe summertime sides
Conventional wisdom is wrong: Mayonnaise is not especially risky at warm weather gatherings (as long as you observe the “danger zone” rule). But do you really want to waste valuable relaxation time explaining that fact to doubters?
Personally, I prefer potato salad made with vinegar-based dressing over mayo — that tang makes me swoon. This is a particularly punchy dressing, with an almost-equal amount of olive oil and vinegar, plus mustard and a few handfuls of chopped herbs.
Everybody expects a pasta salad at a picnic. Shake things up by offering an Asian-inspired noodle salad that’s bursting with crunchy vegetables. Pro tip: Don’t use all the citrus-soy dressing at once — bring some to the picnic in a little jar and mix it in when you get there.
I always like to have one side dish that can also double as a vegetarian main. Here’s a gorgeous Southwestern salad with black beans, corn, avocado, tomatoes, and bell pepper, plus plenty of cilantro and lime. For a dip variation, chop everything smaller and serve with tortilla chips for scooping.
Grill like a pro
Keep those safety guidelines in mind when you’re manning the grill — and keep your meat thermometer handy. Each of these recipes includes details about temperature.
Save this recipe for when you want to wow someone. Or, y’know, just make it for yourself. Brining the pork chops in a salty-sweet mix of OJ, brown sugar, and spices keeps them super-juicy when they hit the grill. And that basil chimichurri is heavenly. Make extra — you’re going to want to use it everywhere.
This recipe is perfect for gatherings where there might be picky eaters. If you just want straightforward hamburgers, the technique spelled out here will give you exactly that. But if you want to, as they say, take it up a notch, don’t skip the bacon tomato jam and smoked gouda.
Chicken thighs only need to spend an hour in a citrus-cider vinegar-chili marinade to soak up tons of flavor. That gives you plenty of time to whip up a fresh pico de gallo and warm up some corn tortillas. Once the chicken’s grilled, chop it up into bite-sized pieces and put all the fixings in their own serving dishes, so each person can build their ideal taco.
Smoke it up
The deep, luscious flavor you get from woodsmoke just can’t be beat. These recipes all include the specifics you need to keep harmful bacteria from growing during the long cooking time — you’ll need a food thermometer to ensure food reaches the right internal temperature.
The combination of brine, spice rub, and smoke turns a regular ol’ chicken into a memorable meal. Pro tip: If your smoker can accommodate it, smoke two birds at once. You’ll have the makings for tacos, sandwiches, and salads with no extra effort.
My almost-16-year-old can demolish several pounds of smoked brisket over a 24-hour period. Good thing this recipe calls for a whole brisket, 12 to 14 pounds! It gets a brown sugar-pepper-salt rub before going into a smoker set up with hickory wood chunks. Plan for a full day of cooking — it takes quite a while to reach the fork-tender stage.
If you’re a smoker newbie, this recipe gives you all the information you need to produce an enviably delicious pile of pulled pork. A dry rub of kosher salt and black pepper with some yellow mustard are all the seasonings you need. It takes all day, but if you follow the instructions you can’t go wrong.
The trick to choosing an outdoor-friendly dessert: In general, stay away from creamy things, which can spoil a lot faster than, say, fruit-based treats. And obviously, avoid anything that melts.
Hand pies are my favorite picnic dessert — I mean, how can you say no to a pie you can eat with your hands? These are bursting with lemon-scented blueberries, and if you use a ready-made piecrust they come together in a flash.
The bright taste of lemon from a full tablespoon of zest makes these easy cookies taste like sunny days — just the thing for a picnic. They’re soft, chewy, citrusy, and a breeze to pack and transport.
I know I said to stay away from things that melt, which should rule out desserts with chocolate. But here it’s just an accent, chips studded throughout bars that taste distinctly butterscotch-y, thanks to the brown sugar.
More recipes to take outdoors
The sun is high in the sky and the great outdoors is calling your name. Whether you're heading to the backyard or further afield, here are more foods to enjoy, with tips and tools for cooking them perfectly.