Eating outside–be it a picnic, a BBQ, or just taking plates outdoors to watch the sun set–is something I absolutely live for in summertime. But I have to admit, all the food contamination scares of the past year (from beef to lettuce and tomatoes) had me feeling a little cautious about the whole process. Especially since, while bacteria can multiply at any temperature between 40 and 140 degrees F, the process really takes off between 90 and 110 degrees. Add to that, the fact that when you’re cooking or eating outside, surfaces and tools are tougher to keep clean and, well, yikes. Luckily, I’ve since discovered that there are a whole lot of incredibly easy, hassle-free things you can do to protect yourself. Here, a basic checklist.
Produce smarts: Crazy fact: Leafy greens are now responsible for nearly 1/4 of non-meat related food poisonings, according to the CDC. That said, washing produce and drying it with a clean cloth or paper towel is actually a great way to get rid of bacteria. What I learned that was really new here, is that you want to wash fruits and vegetables even when you’re not planning on eating the peels or rinds–otherwise you can transfer bacteria to the flesh when you hold or peel something. Also, while you can store, say, an apple or watermelon at room temperature, as soon as you slice it up, bacteria can grow on it in at the same rapid rate it does a prepared or cooked food, meaning you shouldn’t leave it out too long.
Prepared food serving/storing basics: Obviously, the sooner you serve something out of the oven or fridge, the better. The USDA, which has done a whole lot of research on just how fast bacteria multiply, recommends throwing away any dish that’s been sitting out for more than two hours in temperatures lower that 90 degrees (and this goes for the aforementioned cut produce as well). For temperatures above 90 (when bacterial growth rate doubles), that timeframe shrinks to about an hour. Below, a few tips to help ensure things stay at their freshest:
1) Don’t overstuff your cooler. You want the frosty air to be able to circulate. Along those same lines, store things in shallow, small containers. Air will move around much faster.
2) If you’re packing prepared foods for a trip, give yourself some time to cool them down in the fridge (a few hours is optimal). I especially like this tip for foods you buy hot. By chilling them down and then packing them in a cooler, you’re really extending their life.
3) Because we tend to reach for beverages a lot, pack them in a separate cooler if possible. If there’s extra room in your food cooler, adding a bag of ice will do a lot to keep the temperature down.
4) For serving cold food outside on a really hot day, you can get pretty creative: Platters can be chilled down in the fridge first, or even presented on bowls of ice (which looks quite pretty).
Meats and fish:
1) Always make these the last items you pick up at the store. Be sure they’re tightly wrapped–and try to get them in a separate bag from your produce. Keep the car cool on the way home.
2) Because the outside of a cut will thaw so much faster than the inside–meaning that you’ll have a room-temperature surface busily breeding bacteria, while the interior is still frozen–always defrost in the fridge or in a bowl of ice water. (This is, incidentally, why you don’t want to put something frozen directly on the grill. The outside will cook up too fast.) You can use a microwave to defrost, but make sure to transfer the food directly to the grill so bacteria doesn’t have time to grow.
3) Marinate in the fridge only, and before you start, portion out the amount of mixture you want to use as sauce; don’t let it have contact with the raw meat or fish.
4) Grill with a meat thermometer. 160 degrees is the target for pretty much everything except chicken and hot dogs, which need to hit 165 to be considered safe. If you’re waiting a little before serving, move the food to the side of the grill, where it will stay hot but not keep cooking up. Always, always, use different plates and utensils for raw and cooked foods (labels of color coding can help here).
On keeping your hands clean: I asked Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MSRA why this is so critical. I love how she explains it: “Hand washing is one of the easiest, safest ways to get rid of bacteria,” she says. “The ‘soapiness’ in soap is a mix of molecules that attract dirt and bacteria and dissolve oil, allowing those things to be rinsed away by water. The friction of rubbing your hands together helps, too. It loosens the dirt and bacteria from your skin.” Twenty seconds is the timeframe to aim for.
As for alcohol-based sanitizing gels, they kill the bacteria on-contact. If you rub your hands well, the bacteria should slough off, too. What won’t go away is the dirt, so do keep hand washing as your primary defense, and use the sanitizers when you can’t or don’t have time to wash.
If you’ve got more tips and ideas, I’d absolutely love to hear them! I’ve also got a little more on this topic (including all the scary things you might not want to know about bacteria on car seats and steering wheels) over at AOL Health.