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Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1196

Jersey Summer Shore Safety: Keeping Food Safe When Packing a Picnic

  • Joanne Kinsey, Family and Community Health Sciences Educator, Atlantic and Ocean Counties
  • Cara Muscio, Former Marine Extension Agent, Monmouth, Ocean, and Atlantic Counties

Enjoying the outdoors at the New Jersey shore can be a wonderful event with family and friends. Many people find it both rewarding and economical to pack up nutritious and healthy meals and snacks for their beach, hiking, or boating experience. Picnic food safety is a key component of a successful recreational outing. In order to keep food from spoiling while outdoors, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Whether packing lunch for the family or a large picnic feast, it is recommended to start with a clean counter or work surface, clean hands, and clean utensils to avoid contamination of food.
  • Hands should be washed for 20 seconds in warm soapy water and dried using a paper towel before handling any type of food.
  • Use different cutting boards for raw meat, seafood, poultry products and vegetables.

In addition, follow these tips for assuring a safely packed picnic of tasty and nutritious foods:

  • Always wash containers and lunch bags with hot soapy water and allow to dry thoroughly.
  • Use containers that can be easily packed and opened when outdoors. When planning the picnic menu choose foods that are easy to prepare, store and eat. Peanut butter and jelly on whole grain bread is still a favorite of many children and easy to pack for a picnic.
  • Foods such as apple slices, grapes, cherries, strawberries, raisins, and pears make easy fuss-free snacks to pack and to eat. Cut melons need to be kept cold. Melons can be a source of foodborne illness. Bacteria, such as Salmonella and Shigella (common causes of foodborne illness) are often present on the rind. Therefore melons should be washed thouroghly before cutting them, and then refrigerate them immediately.
  • Oatmeal cookies are easy to prepare and pack in a small zip sealed bag. Unsweetened ready-to-eat cereal stored in a small bag or container is a simple option for a quick, healthful snack.

It is not always easy to wash your hands at a picnic, so pack plenty of moist towelettes if your picnic site does not have hand-washing facilities. Be sure to pack plenty of utensils and dishware. If you plan on being at the picnic site for several hours, having plenty of clean plates and utensils would be helpful.

If you are preparing a meal that requires cooking prior to packing, be sure to cook food to proper temperature for the required amount of time. Once the food is cooked, refrigerate it immediately until it is time to pack the picnic. Try to plan just the right amount of food to take. That way you won't have to worry about the storage or safety of leftovers.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Chicken kabob.

When using cold foods it is important to keep them cold once the food has been prepared. For example, if you use mayonnaise and cold cuts to make sandwiches, be sure to wrap them securely in plastic wrap or foil and store them in the refrigerator until packing them in the picnic cooler at the last minute.

Raw foods, such as chicken, burgers, and fresh fish for grilling should be stored in a sealed container or zip lock freezer bag and stored in a separate cooler from the ready-to-eat-foods. These foods should be kept very cold with ice to remain cold throughout the day. When taking foods off the grill, put them on a clean plate.

Don't put cooked food on a platter that held raw meat. When cooking these foods it is best to use a food thermometer and adhere to these recommendations:

  • Cook ground beef, veal, lamb, and pork to at least 160 degrees F (71°C).
  • Cook all poultry to a minimum of 165 degrees F (74°C).
  • Cook pork roasts or chops to a least 145 degrees F (63°C).
  • Cook fin fish to 145 degrees F (63°C), or when flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork.
  • Cook shrimp, lobster, and crabs until the shells are red and flesh is pearly and opaque.
  • Cook clams, oysters, and mussels until their shells open. Do not consume if shells are broken or do not open.
  • Thoroughly cook food all at one time. Never partially cook food, then go back to finish cooking it later. This reduces the chance of harmful bacteria growing and forming toxins.

Chill water, soda, juice and other drinks before packing them in the cooler. Use a separate cooler for drinks so the one containing perishable food won't be opened and closed. When food starts out cold it will have a better chance of staying cold for a longer period of time. Pack picnic food in an insulated reusable bag with at least one frozen ice bag. Another option is to use bags of ice packed in a zip-sealed freezer bag. Consider partially freezing bottled water to keep the water cold and to add extra coolness to the picnic bag. Don't put the cooler in the trunk; carry it in the air-conditioned car. At the picnic, keep the cooler in a shady spot. Keep the lid closed and avoid repeated openings. Replenish the ice as it melts.

Figure 2.

Figure 2. Family on a picnic.

For food safety, keep food above or below the danger zone (temperatures usually between 40 and 140 degrees F, 4 and 60 degrees C). Do not allow food to remain at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Discard all foods that cannot be stored properly or left unrefrigerated for longer than 2 hours. When temperatures are above 90 degrees F (32°C), discard food after 1 hour. Always discard food that has not been refrigerated or stored properly after the picnic.

By following a few simple safety precautions, you can make eating healthy, safely prepared food the key to a successful picnic adventure along the Jersey shore. Pack a variety of healthy Jersey Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain foods, and water to ensure a nutritious outing that will provide the energy for all of your adventures. Choose fun physical activities such as walking, hiking, canoeing, bicycling, and swimming to get moving and healthy. A healthy picnic that is cooked, packed and stored properly can be the ticket to a wonderful family bonding experience! Please see the other Jersey Summer Shore Safety fact sheets for more tips on enjoying the outdoors in a safe, environmentally responsible way.


December 2012