woman, seated at a table with a picnic basket

Niki Davis, Hospitality, Tourism and Event Management Program manager and professor of practice, offers tips for a safe picnic. Photo by Russell Bailey.  

July 29, 2022

SIU “food nerd” and expert offers tips for safe summer outdoor eating

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Summer invites us to spend more time at picnics and barbecues, relaxing with friends and family while letting the kids expend some energy playing. Niki Davis, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Hospitality, Tourism and Event Management Program manager and professor of practice, offers a few suggestions to ensure a safe experience for everyone and avoid ending the day with food poisoning. 

Eight Tips for a Safe Picnic

1 – Start with clean hands

If you’re expecting a large crowd, set up a handwashing station using a beverage cooler with a spout for running water and provide hand soap and paper towels. Hand sanitizing wipes or hand towelettes will work well for a small crowd or your family.   

2 – Pack safe

Pack cold food in a different cooler than the one you use for your beverages. The beverage cooler tends to get opened regularly, causing ice to melt more quickly. This same ice is touched by lots of hands, too. Keeping foods and drinks in separate coolers will help keep food at the correct temperature since the lid will stay closed and avoid the chance of contamination from people grabbing drinks. If you are taking both cold and hot food to your picnic, pack them in separate coolers. 

3 – Keep your cool

Keep cold food cold. Cold salads and other dishes should be kept in a cooler at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below until it is time to serve the meal. To keep foods cold, pack your cooler no more than two-thirds full of food, leaving the rest of the space available for ice packs. Keep an oven thermometer in your cooler to monitor the temperature.

4 – Ice, baby, ice

Ice can carry bacteria just like food can. Use ice packs to keep your food cold. When using ice to cool beverages in a cooler, keep it separate from ice used in drinks. Use an ice scoop or spoon with any ice used to fill drink glasses or bottles. Freeze water in reusable water bottles to use as ice packs for cold food. When the ice begins to melt, you will have extra bottles of water. 

5 - Like it hot

Keep hot food hot. Hot foods should be kept at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer to prevent harmful bacteria from invading your meal. Correctly packing hot food in a cooler will help maintain its temperature. Preheat your cooler with hot water to help maintain the internal temperature longer. Pack your food while it is hot and use towels to fill in any empty space. This will help further insulate your food. 

6 – Check the time

Food should not sit out for more than 2 hours; after that, the risk of food-borne illness starts climbing. If the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside, food should sit out for no more than an hour. Serve food in small batches so you can keep everything at the correct temperature as long as possible. Discard any foods that have been out too long to keep everyone safe. 

7 – Support sustainability

Disposable plates, glasses and cutlery are commonly used at picnics; the result is trash for the landfill. Do the environment a favor. If you choose this route, use compostable products like bamboo cutlery that can be recycled. Another great option is to invest in a picnic basket that has Melmac or melamine plates and reusable cutlery that you can wash and reuse at each picnic. 

8 – Know the symptoms

While we plan for the best, it is important to know the symptoms of food poisoning, just in case things go awry despite our best efforts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms can occur as soon as 30 minutes or as long as several weeks after consuming spoiled food, depending on the bacteria you are exposed to. Nausea, vomiting, fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea are common symptoms. Seek medical attention for severe symptoms or if they persist more than 3 days.  

With careful planning, packing and coordinating, you and your family and friends can enjoy a fun and safe summer picnic experience.