Rule for picnic cuisine: keep it cool and clean


While there's always a charm in al fresco dining, there's also a certain amount of risk. Anyone preparing food to transport to a distant spot, eat and pack up again needs to keep in mind some safe food-handling guidelines.

Bessie Berry, a home economist who supervises the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hot Line, says the USDA recommends the following safety precautions:

*Start with clean preparation -- wash hands, utensils and work area before preparing food.

*If you're marinating something, do it in the refrigerator.

*Don't thaw frozen items on the counter.

*Plan to take along only the amount of food you'll use.

*Avoid creamy or custard-like foods; salads with store-bought mayonnaise are safe if kept cold.

*When packing the basket or cooler, start with cold food; pack straight from the refrigerator.

*For keeping items cold, always use an insulated cooler, and include a cold source: ice; or ice pack (frozen items like juice packs can be a cold source; if you're transporting hamburger or ribs, start with them in the frozen state.)

*Keep hot foods hot with a thermos or insulated dish.

*Wrap raw foods separately; avoid letting raw food juices come into contact with ready-to-eat foods.

*Don't put the cooler in the trunk and don't leave it sitting in the sun at the picnic site. Keep it as cool as possible. Leave the lid on at all times and don't open it more than necessary. Replenish the ice if it starts to melt. (A separate cooler for drinks might be a good idea.)

*Keep food cold until cooking it on the grill; make sure it is cooked completely and use a clean plate when serving cooked food. Don't let raw meat juices touch other food.

*In hot weather (above 85 degrees) don't leave food out for more than an hour. Serve smaller portions so rest can stay cool. Replace food quickly in the cooler after serving.

*If there is still ice in the cooler and the food didn't sit out at the picnic site, the food should still be good. (Don't save anything that was out on the table, or left out of the cooler for an extended period of time.)

nTC If you have any questions about safely preparing, packing, transporting, cooking, serving or saving food for a picnic, call the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hot Line at (800) 535-4555. The line is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Don't forget the non-food items that are handy to have along on a picnic: hand wipes in packets for cleaning up after eating, adhesive bandages and first-aid cream, insect repellent and a lotion to treat insect bites or stings.

And don't forget the bottle opener or corkscrew.

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