As the days go whizzing by it’s only a few weeks until Memorial Day is here — the official start of summer.

Oh those sweet memories and smells of summer. Thoughts turn to hot summer days with picnics by the water’s edge and/or the smell of grilled food coming from the barbecue. It’s also a time when food borne illnesses increase for two reasons. One reason is bacteria tend to multiply faster when it’s warm. Second is people are cooking outside more, away from the refrigerators, thermometers and washing facilities of a kitchen. So before the season even starts, getting the basics down now may prevent you or a loved one from being one of the six Americans that are stricken with food poisoning each year.

Planning and packing

• Plan to take only the amounts of food you’ll use.

• Pack food right from the refrigerator into the cooler immediately before leaving home.

• Foods that don’t need to be stored in the cooler include: whole fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, trail mix, canned meat spreads and peanut butter and jelly. (However, once canned foods are opened, put them in the cooler.)

• If you don’t have an insulated cooler, try freezing sandwiches (without lettuce and tomatoes) beforehand.

• Beforehand, freeze clean, empty milk cartons or bottles with water to make ice, or freeze gel-packs.

• Bringing box drinks, freeze ahead and use as cooling.

The time out rule

• Perishable food should not sit out for more than two hours.  In hot weather (above 90 degrees Fahrenheit), food should NEVER sit out for more than one hour.

• Refrigerate any leftovers promptly in shallow containers.

• Do NOT thaw frozen items outside the refrigerator or without being in cold water.

• It’s best to cook meat, poultry, etc. completely at the picnic site rather than partially or precook ahead of time.

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold

• After cooking meat and poultry on the grill, keep it hot until served – at 140 °F or warmer.

• Keep hot food hot by setting it to the side of the grill rack, not directly over the coals where they could overcook.

• Plan to keep hot foods hot with a thermos or insulated dish.

• Serve cold food in small portions, and keep the rest in the cooler. 

• These foods need to be kept cold: raw meat, poultry and seafood; deli and luncheon meats or sandwiches; summer salads (tuna, chicken, egg, pasta or seafood); cut up fruit and vegetables; and perishable dairy products.

Keep everything clean

• When transporting raw meat or poultry, double wrap or place the packages in plastic bags to prevent juices from the raw product from dripping on other foods. Don’t let raw meat juices touch other food.

• Store food in watertight containers to prevent contact with melting ice water.

• Always wash your hands before and after handling food.

• If there’s no source of clean water, bring water for preparation and cleaning. Or pack clean cloths and moist towelettes for cleaning surfaces and hands.

• Don’t forget to pack paper towels.

Keep your cooler cool

• Pack foods in reverse order. First foods packed should be the last foods used. (Exception: pack raw meat or poultry below ready-to-eat foods to prevent raw meat or poultry juices from dripping on the other foods as above.)

• When carrying drinks, consider packing them in a separate cooler so the food cooler is not opened frequently.

• Keep your cooler full. It will maintain its cold temperature longer than a partially filled one. 

• Limit the times the cooler is opened. Open and close the lid quickly.

• For long trips take along two coolers — one for the day’s immediate food needs, such as lunch, drinks or snacks, and the other for perishable foods to be used later in the trip.

• When camping or at a park — keep the cooler in a shady spot covered with a blanket, tarp or poncho, preferably one that is light in color to reflect heat. At the beach — partially bury it in the sand, cover it with blankets, and shade it with a beach umbrella.

• In a pinch, a heavy cardboard box lined with plastic bags and packed with frozen gel packs or ice will keep things cold.

Separate but equal

• Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and ready-to-eat items like vegetables or bread.

• Never reuse items that touched raw meat or poultry to serve the food once it is cooked.

• Always use a fresh, clean plate and tongs for serving cooked food.

Temperature matters

• Completely thaw meat, poultry and fish before grilling so it cooks more evenly.

• Cook food to a safe minimum internal temperature to destroy harmful bacteria.

• Use a food thermometer to be sure the food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature. (Now I know a meat thermometer isn’t the first thing you reach for when planning to cook meats and poultry outdoors, yet it’s a safety precaution. They are inexpensive and worth the health benefit. )

• Clean the thermometer between uses.

Safe minimum internal temperatures

• Whole poultry: 165 degrees Fahrenheit

• Poultry breasts: 165 degrees Fahrenheit

• Ground poultry: 165 degrees Fahrenheit

• Ground meats: 160 degrees Fahrenheit

• Beef, pork, lamb, and veal (steaks, roasts and chops): 145 degrees Fahrenheit and allow to rest at least 3 minutes.

• Reheat any leftover food to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

• Heat hot dogs to steaming hot.

Back home

• If using a cooler, leftover perishable food is safe only if the cooler still has ice or frozen packs in it and the food didn’t sit out longer than mentioned above (THE TIME OUT RULE).

• Discard unsafe leftover food or immediately store food deemed safe in refrigerator.

Some simple, common-sense food safety rules can save a vacation from disaster. Keep these tips handy and use them as a check list. It could make the difference between a vacation to remember and one that is remembered because people got sick from improperly handled food. Happy food-safe Memorial Day. Enjoy!

Betty Bianconi loves food from growing it to cooking. Her career in food includes writing articles for Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, editing cookbooks and as food editor for Woman’s World. She is co-owner of Food Cures U, a cooking school for healthy eating and a certified Square Foot Gardening instructor. Betty can be reached at seedsofpromise01@gmail.com.