The picnic food that’s sitting in your car might turn out to be a big problem. Packaged food — like crackers — usually do fine in high temperatures, but meat, dairy, cut-up fresh fruit, salads, and prepared foods are another story.
Perishable food may contain bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses. Food that sits in a temperature danger zone while in your car, at a picnic, or campsite can cause those bad guys to multiply exponentially.
Most bacteria don’t go crazy below 40°F or above 140°F. The temperature range in between 40 and 120 degrees, known as the “Danger Zone,” is where they multiply rapidly and can reach harmful levels. A single bacterium that divides every half hour can result in 17 million offspring in 12 hours!
Car Temperatures Can Be Brutal
The temperature rises quickly inside a closed car — even when it’s only moderately warm outside.
A study found that at 9AM when the outside temperature was 82 degrees, the temperature inside a closed car was 109 degrees. At 1:30PM it was 112 degrees outside and 124 degrees inside a closed car.
Cracking the windows helped, but only a little. At 10AM, with four windows cracked, it was 88 degrees outside but 103 degrees inside the car. At 2PM at 110 degrees outside it was 123 degrees inside the car.
Picnic Food and Temperature Control
To prevent bacteria in food from rapidly multiplying food has to be kept within a temperature range.
- Don’t let your picnic food stay in the “Danger Zone” (between 40° F and 140° F) for more than 2 hours, or only for one hour if the outdoor temperature is higher than 90° F. This bears repeating: perishable food can stay safely unrefrigerated for two hours if the air temperature is less than 90 degrees and only for one hour if the temperature is 90 degrees or higher.
- Keep hot foods hot: above 140°F. Keep cold foods cold: below 40°F.
- Remember to include preparation, storage, serving, and transportation time in determining how long food has been out of the fridge or off the heat.
Transporting, Preparing, And Serving
To prevent food-borne diseases, food safety is crucial both when you transport your food and when you prepare and serve it.
- If you’re buying prepared food, dairy or other perishable food, or food to grill, do what you have to do to keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
- Think about your route and how many errands you have to run. Buy beer and paper plates before you pick up your food — not after food shopping while your purchased food bakes in the car.
- Keep a cooler, cold packs, or insulated bags in your car for perishable items. Buy a bag of ice if necessary. Make sure your cooler hasn’t turned into a portable oven because it’s been sitting in the car for too long.
- Be certain that raw meat and poultry are wrapped securely to prevent their juices from cross-contaminating other foods and from dripping on fruit and veggies that you’ve already washed.
At The Picnic Site
Food spoilage and cross-contamination are major warm weather challenges, especially when you’re at remote sites (like a camps or parks) without kitchens and running water. Cross-contamination during preparation, grilling, and serving food is a prime cause of food-borne illness.
- How will you keep things clean – not just the food, but the platters, utensils, and your hands? Is there a source of potable (drinking) water that you can use for cooking and cleaning? You don’t want to use water that’s not safe to drink to wash your food or utensils. If there isn’t, bring water or pack clean, wet cloths, moist towelettes, or paper towels for cleaning your hands and surfaces.
- Wash your hands before and after handling food, and don’t use the same platter and utensils for both raw and cooked meat and poultry.
- Keep hot food hot and cold food cold the entire picnic. The temperature spikes in direct sunlight so keep coolers in the shade.
- Food shouldn’t be out of the cooler or off the grill for more than 2 hours (one hour when the temperature is above 90°F).
- Keep perishable food like meat, chicken, and mayonnaise-based salads in the fridge and don’t stock the cooler until right before you leave home. Keep the cooler in the coolest part of the car while you’re traveling.
- If you’re going on a long trip consider freezing the food and putting it into the cooler frozen, allowing it to defrost (to a cold temperature, not warm) in transit.
- Hot take-out food like ribs and chicken should be eaten within two hours of when it was plucked from the store. If you buy it well before you’re planning to leave, first chill the food in your refrigerator and pack it in an insulated cooler just before you leave.
- Pack beverages in one cooler and perishable foods in another so the perishable foods won’t be repeatedly exposed to warm outdoor air temperatures when the cooler if opened repeatedly for drinks. A full cooler will hold its cold temperature longer than one that’s partially full. Pack plenty of extra ice or freezer packs to maintain a constant cold temperature.