Keep food safe while munching outdoors

July 09, 2013|Lynn Little

When eating outdoors while traveling or picnicking away from home, it’s important to take follow some basic food safety rules to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Cases of food poisoning peak in the summer months, so if you are on the move it is important to follow food safety rules.

Soap and water are essential to cleanliness. Bring your own soap and water to your picnic or campsite. If water for hand washing is not available, disposable wipes or hand sanitizer will do. Wash your hands before and after handling food.

Take foods in the smallest quantity needed — pack only the amount of food you think you’ll use. Consider taking along nonperishable foods and snacks that don’t need to be refrigerated.

Pack foods in your cooler in reverse-use order -—  pack first the foods you are likely to use last. Pack plenty of ice or ice packs in your cooler to ensure a constant cold temperature. You want to be sure your cold foods stay cold.


If meat and poultry need to stay cool for a long period of time, they may be packed while still frozen. Be sure to keep raw meat and poultry wrapped and separated from cooked foods, or foods meant to be eaten raw such as fruits. This will help you avoid cross-contamination

Fill your cooler to capacity; a full cooler will maintain its cold temperatures longer than one that is partially filled. When traveling, transport the cooler in the air-conditioning, rather than in a hot trunk.  Outside, keep the cooler out of direct sun and covered with a blanket or tarp.

Pack drinks in a separate cooler. This cooler will be opened frequently while the food cooler stays closed and cold.

Once removed from the cooler to cook and serve don’t let food sit out for more than two hours. On a hot day (90 degrees or higher), reduce this time to one hour. 

Be sure to include a food thermometer in your grilling supplies. Use it to make sure grilled meat and poultry are cooked to a safe internal temperature and not overcooked. You can’t tell by looking, color is not a reliable indicator.

Be sure you have plenty of clean utensils and platters. To prevent foodborne illness, don’t use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked meat and poultry. Harmful bacteria present in raw meat and poultry and their juices can contaminate safely cooked food.

Leftover food is only safe if returned to a cooler that still contains plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. Otherwise, discard those leftovers. Most harmful bacteria grow fastest between 90 and 110 degrees, so keep those foods cold.

If you have questions or concerns about food safety, contact:

  •  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-MPHotline (888-674-6854). TTY 800-256-7072. 
  •   The Fight BAC! website at
  •  Gateway to Government Food Safety Information at

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.

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