Safe food to go

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Safe food to go:
A guide to packing lunches and picnicking

If you could just throw the refrigerator under one arm and take it with you, there wouldn’t be any problem in caring for food to go.

That’s because the best way to fight food poisoning is to keep perishable foods cold between preparation and serving. This is especially necessary for meat and poultry.

Why keep food cold? At temperatures of 60° F and over, food poisoning bacteria can begin to multiply and cause illness. At summer temperatures of 80° F and above, they multiply very quickly.

While food poisoning usually means uncomfortable intestinal flu-like symptoms, it can be serious in the young, the old and people with other illnesses. The rarely occurring botulism is always serious.

Food poisoning is a larger problem than you might think. Food poisoning effects more than two million people a year.

Food poisoning bacteria are tough to deal with because you usually don’t even know they’re present. They are microscopic in size and you normally can’t see, smell or taste them.

For food safety, prevention is the key. By observing these cold storage, sanitation and thorough cooking rules, you can keep your food safe any time you pack it to go, starting with lunch.

What do I have for lunch?

This is a trying question, right? It’s one you face day after day. Whatever you prepare, here’s how to pick it safely – whether it is in a lunch box, a plain brown bag or a leather attaché case.

Packing safely

Keep everything that touches food clean. Stop and wash your hands before preparing food. Wash utensils, bowls and counter tops – everything that touches food – between work on each dish.

Use a fork, rather than your hands to mix meat, macaroni, egg, tuna or green salads.

Why is there all this emphasis on clean hands? Your hands continually pick up bacteria and other germs, and these organisms dig in around the fingernails and in the creased skin of the hand. Only vigorous washing with hot, soapy water prepares hands to safely deal with food.

Cook food thoroughly. For complete safety, raw meat, poultry and fish should be thoroughly cooked, following package or cookbook directions.

Refrigerate lunch the night before. Pack your bag with perishables such as meat or poultry sandwiches and hard-cooked eggs, and refrigerate it. Add other items such as cookies and cold drinks the following morning.

Keep your lunch cold
Here are some other “cool” tips:

Put something cold in the lunch bag such as a cold drink, a small, plastic refrigerator dish filled with water and frozen, or one of the commercial freezing gels. Some lunch bags now come with freeze-pack inserts.

Freeze your sandwiches. This works best with coarse-textured breads that won’t get soggy when thawed. The sandwich thaws in time for lunch, and keeps everything else cool. Hold the lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. They don’t freeze well. Pack them separately to add at lunch time.

Use a vacuum bottle to keep milk or juice cold until lunch time. Try fruit juices in special wax paper cartons that don’t need refrigeration.

Whatever you do, keep your lunch in the coolest place possible. Avoid leaving it in direct sun or on a warm radiator.

Safe take-along foods

Meats and poultry – Commercially precooked and ready-to-eat meats, such as corned beef, salami and bologna, are good lunch box choices because they last well. Canned meat and poultry, which can be opened and eaten immediately, are good bets, too. Just make sure the can is properly sealed and not rusted, bulging or badly dented.

Fruits and vegetables – Fresh, firm fruits and vegetables travel well. Washing them before packing helps to remove soil you can see, plus bacteria, viruses and insecticide sprays you can’t see.

Caring for the carriers
If you use a lunch box or a laminated tote, wash it out every day to keep bacteria from growing in seams and corners. A weekly cleaning with baking soda should eliminate odors.

If you’re a brown bagger, use only new, clean bags. Don’t reuse bags that have carried groceries. They can pass insects or bacteria from other food to your lunch. Never use a bag that’s wet or stained. It could have germs.

Let’s have a picnic!

When a fine summer afternoon makes everyone “think picnic,” you could find yourself organizing one. Never fear. Find the picnic hamper and the cooler. Then thumb through these warm weather food care hints before you head to the store.


Picnic shopping

Buy perishable products last at the store and get them right into the refrigerator, or into the portable ice chest or insulated bag you’re taking on the picnic. Never leave perishables in a hot car while you run other errands.

For longer storage, freeze food. Wrap items tightly in heavy freezer foil or bags. Make sure your freezer registers 0° F or lower. Mayonnaise-based meat, poultry and fish salads do not freeze well. Tomatoes and lettuce do not freeze well.

Thawing – do it the night before. Contrary to common practice, is not safe to thaw meat and poultry on the kitchen counter. Bacteria can multiply dangerously in the outer layers before inner layers are thawed.

To allow plenty of time for larger cuts to thaw, take meat or poultry out of the freezer and put it on a refrigerator shelf a night or two before you need it. Small cuts will usually thaw in the refrigerator overnight.

If the meat is still partially frozen when you’re ready to leave, it is not a problem. Just cook it a big longer at the picnic.

Cook everything thoroughly. Hamburger patties, pork chops and ribs should be cooked until all the pink is gone. Poultry should be cooked until there is no red in the joints. Fresh fish should be cooked until it flakes with a fork. If you like your steak rare or medium-rare, just remember that there is a chance that some food poisoning organisms can survive such short cooking times.

Take what you know about kitchen cleanliness out to the grill

If there’s no water faucet available, use disposable wet towelettes to clean your hands before working with food.

Keep bacteria on raw meat and poultry from spreading. Wash your hands again after working with raw meat or poultry and before handling other food.

Remove cooked meat and poultry from the grill with clean utensils onto a fresh plate for serving. Don’t reuse utensils, plates or bowls you used with the raw product for either the cooked meat or the other food unless it has been washed properly.

Cool it with a cooler

For a relaxed, worry-free picnic, keep your perishable food such as ham, potato or macaroni salad, hamburger, hot dogs, lunch meat, cooked beef or chicken, deviled eggs, custard and cream pies in a cooler.

While all mayonnaise-based salads should be kept on ice, the mayonnaise you buy at the store is not a food poisoning villain. Homemade mayonnaise, if made without lemon juice or vinegar, can be risky.

The cooler should be well insulated and packed with ice, or you can use a freeze-pack insert. Cold drinks in cans also help other foods cool.

Serving young picnickers

Toddlers who don’t chew food well can choke when they try to swallow whole foods. To reduce this danger, supervise meal time. Keep the child seated. Cut hot dogs lengthwise in narrow strips before serving them. Also be careful with carrot and celery sticks, grapes, apples, cookies and nuts. Cut or crumble these foods into pieces too small to block the child’s throat.


Put perishable foods back in the cooler when you finish eating. Don’t leave them out while you go for a swim or hike.

When possible, put the chest in the passenger area of the car for the trip home. It’s much cooler than the trunk.

If you were gone no more than four or five hours and your perishables were on ice except when cooked and served, you can probably save the leftovers. If in doubt, throw it out!

Adapted from: Safe Food To Go: A Guide to Packing Lunches, Picnicking and Camping Out, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service

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Updated August 22, 2017 7:10pm