As you prep for Independence Day and a full day of celebrations, you’ve probably got plenty on your safety checklist already. From fireworks to water woes, there are lots of summertime dangers just itching to be invited to the picnic. Some, like mosquitoes, show up without an invitation no matter how many citronella candles you light. (Rude.)
But some summer safety concerns can be kept at bay with a little prep work. Case in point? Your backyard BBQ.
That buffet of grilled favorites is a breeding ground for foodborne illnesses and allergic reactions — if you’re not careful, that is.
Want to avoid serving your World Famous Potato Salad with a side of salmonella? Check out these tips for hosting a safer summer cookout.
Unless you know for a fact that no one at your shindig has any food allergies, consider sticking a friendly disclaimer next to foods with likely allergens. No need for full legalese here, of course. But if your chicken salad has almonds, for instance, just make sure you mention it.
You won’t be able to address every known allergy, but you can offer a heads up on the most common food allergies, which are:
- Tree nuts
Download allergen cards from an image search or make them yourself with a pen and paper. Your allergy-suffering friends will appreciate the gesture.
The Main Event
We don’t have to tell you to cook meat thoroughly — we hope not, anyway. But knowing how to tell when meat is cooked all the way through isn’t always an exact science. Even professionals can get it wrong.
Per Foodsafety.gov, an official government website about food safety, properly cooked meat should kill any lingering bacteria that might have traveled with your burgers during processing. Keep these minimum temp guides in mind as you cook:
- Beef: Your burgers — and anything else made with ground beef — need to hit 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Steaks and roasts should be 145F.
- Poultry: No matter the bird, part or how it’s prepared (ground vs. whole, for example), poultry needs to reach 165F for safe eating.
- Fish: Fish with fins should be cooked to 145F. Other seafood, like shrimp, doesn’t have quite the same black-and-white guidelines. But you’ll know shrimp, lobster, crabs and scallops are cooked when the flesh is, via Foodsafety.gov, “pearly or white, and opaque.”
- Cured meats: If the meat is already cooked, like hot dogs, heat it to the temperature listed on the package. If it’s uncooked, like a fresh sausage, cook it using the guidelines on the package or the guidelines for the main protein. Mixed meat has a general minimum cook temp of 160F, with an exception for poultry. As noted, poultry always needs to cook to 165F.
Once you’re done cooking, keep in mind that meat isn’t a “set it and forget it” food, especially if you live in a hotter climate. In general, meat should be refrigerated within 2 hours of being out. That time limit drops to just 1 hour if the outside temp is above 90 degrees.
Bacteria grows quickly, and meat will spoil sooner than you think without proper storage. Plus, piles of unattended food can summon extra bugs to the festivities.
So you can party all night if you like, but your proteins need an early bedtime in the fridge.
Maybe you know that meat needs to be cooked to specific temps and stored within a couple hours. But perhaps you play a little fast and loose with your veggies?
It’s easy to assume that crowd favorites like grilled corn and pasta salad pose no threats in the health department. And while some sides are worse offenders than others, all sides need proper care. Some tips:
- Prep: Wash your hands before preparing food. While you’ve got the sink on, go ahead and wash your produce thoroughly, too. Use clean knives and cutting boards for each thing you prepare, and avoid cross-contamination by keeping your workstation clean as you go.
- Serving: Keep foods separated when possible. This is important for foods that need to be kept cold vs. ones that don’t. It also makes things easier for people with allergies. For foods that need cold — prepared salads, desserts, etc. — serve over ice or store in a cooler with packed ice.
Foodborne illnesses don’t care what time of year it is, but the bacteria that cause food poisoning enjoy your outdoor parties as much as you do. That’s because bacteria thrive on warm weather and high humidity.
Like meat, sides need to be stored after sitting out for about 2 hours, less if it’s a hot day. That includes your vegetables, especially if they’re tossed in sauces.
Not sure how long it’s been since you put out that bowl of potato salad? Toss it. That extra helping isn’t worth the risk of getting sick.
Desserts might seem harmless when it comes to food safety. Unfortunately, sweet treats come with their own set of risks — yep, even your uncle’s unparalleled chocolate cake or that beautiful watermelon you picked up at the farmer’s market.
You don’t need to be a top chef to know that your ice cream shouldn’t be left out in the sun. But dairy products aren’t the only risky treats.
Sugar-laden foods will attract ants and other bugs, so keep desserts refrigerated or covered until it’s time to eat them. And don’t think ants only go for the good stuff, like pies and cookies. Fresh produce can attract uninvited pests to the party, too, so keep it stored safely until you’re ready to dig in.
There’s nothing quite like a bowl of homemade ice cream topped with fresh fruit to celebrate a sweet summer night. Your neighborhood critters agree.
A Note About COVID-19
And finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include a note about the pandemic in our summer food safety post. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 doesn’t transmit from food.
In other words, you likely won’t get it from a hot dog that someone else cooked for you.
That said, this virus is contagious. So if the person who made your food is sick, doesn’t wash his hands or wear a mask, and doesn’t keep his distance, you could get sick, too. It just won’t be the hot dog’s fault.
As you’re planning your summer celebrations, take extra care to screen the guest list for people who’ve been ill or people with symptoms.
Reduce your risk of getting sick by staying at least 6 feet away from people you don’t live with. Wear a mask if you can’t keep your distance or the party’s mainly inside, and wash your hands often for 20 seconds at a time. And if possible, limit the guest list. It’s easier to maintain social distance if there’s less society, after all.
You can still enjoy your summer — and all the great food that comes with it — with the right planning and prep work.