Take Your Meal Outside with Picnic Food Safety Tips

We enjoy our meals when good food, good service and a beautiful setting converge. A clean dining space and attractive eating area — the environment — entices us to eat and enjoy. And, it's hard to imagine a dining space that's more inviting than a scenic picnic area!

Last year my husband and I started a tradition of taking weekly picnics. He plans the destination; I'm in charge of the food.

On Saturdays, I prepare our meal, so Sundays — our picnic day — is work-free and ever so enjoyable. Just like at home, our meals include lots of vegetables, fruit, lean protein and whole grains.

Keep Cold Foods Cold

Protein foods (meats, eggs and dairy) and cut melons are potential food poisoning threats and must be kept cold. Here are my tips on how to do so:

  • Pack foods in insulated containers with ice packs.
  • When preparing, chill foods quickly in shallow containers. Glass and metal chill quicker than plastic.
  • Pack cold plate ingredients separately and arrange the plates at the table.
  • Slice meats thinly after preparation and pack in zipper bags. Store directly between ice packs.
  • Freeze individual parfaits for an hour before departing.
  • Pack fruit crisps and parfaits in shallow mason jars. 

Keep Hot Foods Hot

In cooler months, we add soup to our picnic menu. I make the soup the day before and chill it quickly in shallow containers. Then, on the day of the picnic, I preheat the thermos by filling it with boiling water. Then, I heat the soup to a simmer, empty the thermos of water and add the soup.

We always take a thermos of coffee to enjoy after our meal. The coffee thermos is preheated with boiling water prior to adding the fresh brewed coffee.

Considering Timing and Setting

There are many state and local parks and wildlife restoration areas within a 100-mile radius of our home. This is important because you should consume all foods within two hours after packing. And we only pack what we plan to eat, so there are no leftovers! 

Also, pack hand sanitizer and use it frequently.

A big part of the fun of picnics is setting the table with cloth napkins, cutlery and small plates. I cover the eating area with a cloth prior to set up. Many parks have running water where I can rinse the dishes after eating. Then, I give them a more thorough washing when I get home.

My final step: pick a flower from our yard and take a mini-bottle for a centerpiece.

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Cindy Gay, RD, LD
Cindy Gay, RD, LD, serves as historian for the West Virginia Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, teaches in the lifelong learning program and conducts farmers market demonstrations. She blogs at Cindy's Health Meals and is enjoying planning meals for two instead of meals for 1,000. Connect with her on Twitter and Pinterest.