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Don’t spoil your summertime fun with the chance of getting sick from contaminated food. Here are some tips for maintaining food safety during warm weather.
Nothing says summer quite like backyard barbecues, picnics, and camping. But nothing spoils a picnic more quickly than unwelcome guests—and I’m not talking about party crashers. These other unwelcome guests come in the form of food-borne bacteria, which can multiply quickly in hot summertime temperatures and make your picnic foods risky to eat.
The bacteria in foods that can make you sick grow quickly at room temperature, and even faster when the thermometer climbs to 90 degrees F (32C) or so. Keeping foods cold discourages the bacteria from growing, and cooking foods destroys them. So, the most basic rule is: keep hot foods hot and keep cold foods cold.
Pack Your Cooler the Smart Way
If you’re going to carry raw meat to grill at the park or your campsite, pack your cooler carefully. Season or marinate the meat and put it in a tightly sealed plastic container or zippered plastic food storage bag, then keep it separated from any foods that are ready-to-eat in your cooler. You don’t want any of those raw meat juices dripping onto your fruits, veggies and side dishes. And pack your cooler with plenty of ice or ice packs, so that everything stays nice and cold.
Don’t Let the Outside Fool You
When it’s time to serve foods from the grill, check thick foods like bone-in chicken pieces to make sure they’re cooked all the way through before serving. Sometimes they cook quickly on the outside, but they’re still raw or undercooked in the middle. If you have a few hours before it’s time to grill, you can also partially cook chicken pieces in the microwave, then drop them in a zippered plastic bag with the marinade and refrigerate. Since the chicken is partially cooked, it takes less time to finish it on the grill; it tends to cook more evenly and it’s less likely to be dry.
Once your fish, meat or poultry comes off the grill, it might be tempting to dunk it back in the marinade—but don’t. Since the marinade was in contact with raw or undercooked meat, it could harbor some harmful bacteria that could cause illness.
The 2-2-4 Rule
When it comes to leftovers, an easy way to remember food storage guidelines is simple: two hours, two inches, four days. These numbers make up the “2-2-4 rule.”
Two hours is how long foods can safely stay at room temperature after you’ve taken them out of the oven or off the grill. In the case of cold foods, that’s how long they can safely stay out of the refrigerator or cooler. But there’s an exception to this rule: the limit drops to just an hour if the outdoor temperature is 90 degrees F (32C) or higher. Once the time limit is reached, the food should be refrigerated or frozen. So, if you’re away from home, be sure to pack up your food and place it back in the cooler with your ice packs to keep them at a safe temperature.
The two-inch rule means that you should store leftover foods in shallow containers—no more than two inches deep—so they can cool down evenly and quickly. If containers are too deep, it takes too long for the food in the middle to cool down.
The last rule says that you should use your refrigerated leftovers within four days. Otherwise, you should toss them out. But picnic leftovers are pretty tasty, so chances are that they’ll be long gone before then.