Planning a picnic? Here's how to keep your food safe and free of bugs

Don't let food go to waste if you're planning to eat outside.
by Erica Chayes Wida / / Source: TODAY
Memorial Day Picnic
Homemade Memorial Day Hamburger Picnic with Chips and FruitShutterstock

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Summer may not have officially started but plenty of people are already planning beach days, outdoor hikes and balmy nights under the stars — which means it's outdoor eating season.

We know you've got the fun part down, but what about keeping that food safe before you dine?

The perfect spread is prepared, the gingham blanket is packed and you're ready to sprawl out on a grassy knoll for an-American picnic. But the warm temperatures everyone loves are also breeding grounds for bacteria and, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, food borne illness rates are higher in summer.

Not to worry, food fans, the basics behind handling all of your edible favorites are easy to remember and even easier to do. Whether you're road tripping to your picnic destination, hosting it in your backyard, or tailgating before a baseball game, these USDA-approved tips cover all bases.

1. Keep it cool.

Use an insulated cooler and fill it with ice or frozen gel packs. If you're bringing frozen food like popsicles or ice cream, they can help keep other foods at the right temperature: a chilly 40 degrees. If a food is meant to be refrigerated (like potato salad or charcuterie) it should be kept cold until you're ready to serve it to keep it from spoiling in the hot summer sun.

Other foods that need to be kept cold include seafood and poultry, deli meat, many fruits and vegetables, and dairy products.

2. Fill it up.

A full cooler will maintain a cold temperature longer than one that's partially full. Also, avoid opening the cooler a lot so food stays colder longer. You wouldn't stand in front of the fridge with the door open all day, would ya?

3. Give it some shelter.

If you're picnicking in an area that provides shade, use it. It's best to keep coolers out of direct sunlight so the ice packs don't thaw as quickly. If you're on a beach or somewhere unshaded, bring a tent or umbrella to help food stay cold.

4. If you're hitting the road, do this.

The USDA suggests bringing ice-packed coolers to store cold stuff in the car while you're driving because, yes, cars get really hot in the sun. If you're bringing warmer items, use warm towels or insulated bags to help maintain the right temperatures of hot foods.

5. Service matters.

Serve cold food in small portions and keep the main dishes in the cooler. If you've cooked food on the grill or a campfire, keep hot food at the right temperature before serving (140 degrees or warmer). You can do this by setting cooked food to the side of the grill rack, not directly over the coals, where it could burn.

6. Ban the bugs.

When you're eating outside, it's expected that a few uninvited guests may show up to the party. Any party planner's primary defense against pesky pests will be to make sure all food is covered before, during and even after the main meal is being served. Use airtight containers when possible and good quality shrink wrap to tightly cover oddly-shaped dishes. Strategically placed citronella candles and bug lanterns can also help keep bugs at bay — but note that not all bugs will be repelled each device.

7. No sitting allowed.

When dining outside, don't let food sit out for more than two hours. If it's truly a hot day (above 90 degrees), the USDA advises never keeping it out for longer than one hour. Be sure to store any leftovers of any hot and cold items back in the cooler — or the fridge, if you can get home within the two-hour window.

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