Follow these rules to safely pack your food this summer so you can feast without any funny stuff. 

By Betty Gold
Updated May 31, 2019
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When summer's in full swing, there's nothing better than planning a trip to the park, beach, or your own backyard and having plenty of picnic provisions in tow. If you’re taking food along, though, you should know a few food safety rules so you can eat your meal without the threat of food poisoning—having salads, sandwiches, and sweets out in the sun all day can be a recipe for disaster if you don't pack them properly.

We tapped Liz Weinandy, MPH, RDN, a dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, to share her picnic basket guidelines—including what not to pack, which coolers work well, how long certain foods will keep, and other best practices for keeping your food safe. Because what could be worse than letting spoiled sandwiches turn your day of fun in the sun into a family-wide food-poisoning fest?

Roland Bello

1
Do: Pack Wisely

First, you’ll need the right carrier for your picnic. Weinandy recommends using fiberglass, plastic, or steel coolers, like the Igloo Ice Cube Roller ($45, amazon.com), instead of a traditional basket or insulated storage bag since they have more insulation. Because you’re filling the cooler with ice packs and food, it can get pretty hefty, so she suggests splurging on one with wheels and a telescoping handle. Lastly, leave the packing for the last minute so foods don't spend any extra time sitting out. “Put the most perishable foods closest to the ice or gel packs and fill the cooler entirely,” she adds. “Packing a cooler that is full rather than half full will extend the time the items inside stay cold.”

2
Don’t: Leave Food Out For Too Long

While you can, of course, leave out non-perishable foods like chips, cookies, or bread to munch on throughout the day, perishable items should generally not sit out for more than two hours. “During the summer this time often shortens because in hot weather (above 90°F), food should never sit out for more than one hour,” she says. “Bacteria growth is more rapid at hot temperatures. Meats, cold foods, and mayonnaise-based options like potato salads are safe as long as they remain in a cooler and on ice.” These can stay in the cooler as long as the ice is not melted.

3
Do: Keep Hot Foods Hot and Cold Foods Cold

A good rule of thumb is to remember cold foods should be kept below 40°F and hot foods should be kept above 140°F. A cooler with plenty of ice will help keep the foods cold enough, while hot foods can be stored in a vacuum-insulated thermal container, like those from Thermos. Items that you buy in the refrigerated section of the grocery store (like deli meats and cheese) should be kept cold, and if you have condiments that need to be refrigerated after opening, you should put those on ice after use. Whole fresh fruit is non-perishable and doesn’t have to be kept cold, but cut fruit should. And lastly, salads (leafy and mayo-based) should be stored with ice packs and left in the cooler. Weinandy advises that as long as the ice remains frozen in the cooler, the food can stay there for several hours.

4
Don’t: Open the Basket or Cooler Too Much

Remind your fellow picnickers about this, too. “Something to keep in mind is that opening the cooler lid frequently will raise the temperature of the cooler more quickly than if the lid remains mostly closed,” she says. If you find yourself reaching in for the bag of chips several times, it's best just to leave it out entirely.

5
Do: Keep Your Cooler in the Shade

Place it under a shady tree or beach umbrella. “By keeping the cooler in the shade, it will stay cooler longer,” Weinandy says.

6
Don’t: Keep Leftovers

“I have been to many picnics where food is all spread out, everyone eats shortly after and the total time is around 30-45 minutes,” she says. “Most foods can be set out for this long without a problem. However, it would be best to throw any highly perishable foods away after eating. Most people don't like to throw away food though, so if this is the case, keep these perishable foods in the cooler for the whole day. Only keep leftovers if the food has not sat out and it was stored in the cooler. The food should still be on ice in the cooler when you get home.” Bring a food thermometer along to check if it’s still okay to eat (use the temperature guidelines above to be safe). Overall, she recommends following the “golden rule” of food safety: “When in doubt, throw it out.”