For some reason, food eaten outdoors under the sun tastes better. There’s nothing like a burger or hot dog cooked on a grill with a side of macaroni salad, coleslaw or watermelon to celebrate summer.
Unfortunately, the longer cooked and raw foods sit outside in the sun (think Memorial Day picnic or any warm-weather cookout), the higher the chance for foodborne bacteria to multiply. Here are the five most common cookout hazards to avoid — along with some easy tips for safely preparing, cooking and storing food.
These tips will come in handy whether you’re at home with your household or when you are able to enjoy gatherings with larger groups.
Keeping food and drinks in one cooler
You should always have one cooler for food and one for drinks. This way, guests can take as many drinks as they want without repeatedly exposing any raw or prepared food to the warm temperature outside. Within the cooler, it’s smart to store everything in its own separate, resealable container. Keep raw and cooked meat in separate containers and avoid reusing a container that contained raw meat. If burgers are on the menu, store the raw beef patties in a tightly sealed plastic or glass container. Bring along another clean plastic or glass container to hold the burgers once they are cooked.
Not washing produce
Rinse any fruits before you eat them, including fruit you will cut, such as a watermelon. Rinse fruit under cold water, then dry with a clean towel. Store whole and cut fruits and fruit salad in resealable containers or bags in a cooler. Follow the same steps for vegetables.
Keeping food at the wrong temperature
Whether you’re bringing a dish to a picnic or hosting a barbecue, make sure you keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Transport cool dishes (such as salads, slaws and uncooked burgers) in a cooler and keep them there until you are ready to eat. If you leave perishable foods out of the refrigerator or freezer for more than two hours (one hour in temperatures hotter than 90 F) they may enter the danger zone — the unsafe temperatures between 40 F and 140 F in which bacteria multiply rapidly. Keep grilled meat warm by moving it to the cool side of the grill. It’s fine to serve foods at room temperature, but it is not safe to keep food at room temperature for longer than four hours.
Guessing when the meat is done
To be safe and prevent foodborne illness, cook meat to the minimum temperatures recommended by the USDA. Use a digital instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the meat. Cook beef, pork, veal and lamb (steaks, chops and roasts) to 145 F and allow the meat to rest for at least three minutes (the temperature will continue to rise); cook fish and shellfish to 145 F, ground meats to 160 F and all poultry (including ground) to 165 F.
Not cleaning your hands
You can pick up a lot of bacteria out in the world, so it’s important to always wash your hands with soap and warm water before you eat or prepare food and before and after handling raw meat. Bring along hand sanitizer in case you find yourself at a picnic without running water. You should also bring separate towels for drying your hands and cleaning up food messes.
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