Plus, how to keep them cool and fresh until you're ready to eat.

By Erica Sloan
July 08, 2020
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Linda Pugliese

Summer is prime picnic season. It's about eating outdoors, the feast spread on your picnic blanket at the park, at the lake, the beach, or after a hike. Sometimes the food goes straight from the refrigerator to the cooler, the cooler goes right into the car, and then you drive straight to the picnic site and the meal is immediately eaten. That's the ideal scenario as the entire meal remains cold. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case. Most of the time, you pack your picnic into a basket or back and travel at least part of the way on foot before you sit down with your meal. How can you ensure your packed lunch or dinner remains safe along the way? Here, we're sharing guidelines for food temperature, advice on how to keep food chilled, and ideas for picnic foods that hold up best in the heat.

Pack whole fruits and vegetables (rather than cut ones) that are firm; there should be no soft or rotten spots or bruises on anything that makes its way into the basket. Vegetables for salad, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, carrots, and whole onions, can be transported whole—no refrigeration required—but once cut or peeled, they need to be placed in a cooler with ice or refrigerated. Hard cheeses and canned or dried meats are always good bets. Focus on these foods if you're hiking or otherwise picnicking where you can't bring a cooler.

If you are bringing a cooler, perishable foods like potato salad or egg salad are fine, too. "They just can't be left out for more than two hours—make that one hour if the temperature is in the 80s or above," says Argyris Magoulas, technical-information specialist at the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Any longer, and bacteria can multiply, releasing toxins."

To minimize the risk, pack meats, sandwiches, and potato salads or pasta salads (even no-mayo recipes can spoil) straight from the fridge—don't leave them out on the counter at home—and keep them on ice until you eat, recommends assistant food editor Riley Wofford. If you want to feast on soft cheese at your picnic, keep it and any other perishables, such as milk or meats, at 40 degrees F or less in your cooler. And if you take a break from eating for a game of frisbee or a walk, pack the food back into the cooler she says.

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