How to Host a Summer Picnic Without Giving Everyone Food Poisoning

A little prep can go a long way to keep your spread safe in warmer temps.
9 Tips to Reduce Food Poisoning Risk During a Picnic
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It’s that time of year when folks suddenly want to do everything outside—including eating. And what better way to do so than at a picnic? Nothing feels more summery than whipping out a blanket and piling it high with alfresco fixings like tasty sandwiches and refreshing drinks.

But that scene turns a little less blissful when you add bubbly burps and churning stomachs to the mix: Food poisoning really ruins a great outing. We assume that’s something that pretty much all of the estimated 48 million people who come down with it each year can agree on.

Unfortunately, that prime picnic atmosphere is ripe for food poisoning, Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, a food safety and nutrition professor and extension specialist at North Dakota State University, tells SELF. “In addition to warmer temperatures, summer tends to be more humid, and bacteria grow well when adequate moisture is present,” she says. In fact, the bugs can nearly double every 20 minutes in scorching conditions, she says. 

When pathogens like salmonella or E. coli enter your body—say, after you eat dishes spoiled from the heat or prepared by an infected person who didn’t wash their hands—it can cause those classic and supremely hellish food poisoning symptoms, like relentless diarrhea and vomiting, stomach pain, nausea, or even fever.

Thankfully, there are plenty of food safety tips that can help you host a get-together that won’t leave your guests puking. Here’s everything you need to know to protect your picnic, from before you leave the house to after you pack it all up.

What to do before your picnic

1. Pick foolproof recipes fit for the outdoors.

Choose dishes that don’t spoil easily and won’t be a pain to prepare, Thomas J. Delle Donne, MS, an assistant dean of culinary relations and special projects at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, tells SELF. Hot dishes like rice pilaf or noodles must be prepped immediately before heading out, and you’d have to make sure they stay at 140°F or above the entire time, Donne says. As opposed to simply enjoying your time, you’ll be on thermometer duty all day instead.

On the other hand, cold entrees are generally more picnic-friendly: You can prepare and refrigerate them the night before and then just stick them in a cooler to keep them safe, Donne says. Mayo-based staples, like potato or chicken salad, are fair game as long as you keep them on ice the entire time, he says. Other great options include your favorite gazpacho souppasta salad with a crisp vinaigrette, a refreshing fruit medley, or even some sandwich fixings, he says. 

For picnic food that requires even less thought on the day of, consider breaking out the shelf-stable snacks, appetizers, or desserts, Frank Costantino, dean of the Culinary Institute of New York at Monroe College, tells SELF. Bagged pretzels, chips, and mixed nuts are solid choices because you don’t need to worry about keeping them cold or hot, he says. If you’re looking for something sweeter, you can swap sliced fresh fruit—which would need to stay chilled—with dried options, he says. 

2. Wash your fruits and veggies—even the ones with inedible rinds. 

If you’re making a fruit salad, chances are you’ll remember to rinse off the blueberries before you toss them in. But what about the watermelon before you cube it? We don’t totally blame you if that slips your mind, but consider this your gentle reminder: Melons—or any produce with peels—are among the most common fruits people blank on washing, Donne says.

And that can be a big problem: Germs from the rind can potentially enter the flesh of the fruit when you cut into it, Donne says. In fact, in the summer of 2022, a salmonella outbreak linked to cantaloupe sickened 87 people and hospitalized 32 folks across the country.

So if you’ll be serving fruit salad or veggie trays, make sure you wash all your produce first. And do it at home, Dr. Garden-Robinson says. Not all parks, beaches, or other popular outdoor spots have water access, she says. 

3. Pack your bounty wisely.

When assembling your feast, you want to prep it so it’s easy to maintain safe food temps and avoid cross-contamination or the transfer of harmful bacteria, Dr. Garden-Robinson says. If you’re bringing leftovers of a cooked meal to your picnic, separate large dishes into smaller containers to help them cool quickly—this can help prevent bacteria from multiplying, which can occur when food stays warm for too long. To reduce the chilling time, use several shallow containers instead of one larger one before sticking them in the fridge, Donne says.

When it’s time to get packing, keep your food separated! For example, if you plan to bring sashimi to your outing, put them in a designated carrier. You don’t want icky, bacteria-infused juices from uncooked fish seeping into already-prepped dishes, Dr. Garden-Robinson says. 

Packing properly matters for your cooked stuff too: Sandwiches can get soggy if you make them in advance, which means more moisture—an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive in, Donne says. So place your bread, cold cuts, spreads, and toppings in their own bags or containers.

That’s where some fun gear comes in. Try to use bags that have different compartments so you can keep everything isolated, Olayinka Sanni, founder of luxury outing company Picnics In the Chi, tells SELF. Luckily, we’ve hand-selected a list of coolers equipped to haul an assortment of drinks, snacks, and dishes. Try the Coleman Chiller Series Insulated Portable Soft Cooler ($33, Amazon) or Arctic Zone 30-Can Titan Deep Freeze Zipperless Hardbody Cooler ($33, Amazon). Don’t have a fancy picnic tote? Get creative with what you have in your house. Use resealable baggies that won’t leak, Tupperware, or wax paper to wrap your food up, Sanni says. 

What to do during your picnic

4. Use hand sanitizer often. 

Since many picnic grounds don’t have easy-to-use sinks, handwashing can get tricky. Be sure to pack sanitizing wipes or gel and use them before eating or serving food—this will help keep the germs at bay. 

If you’re like me and get overwhelmed by the number of options on the market, there’s an easy way to know which one will do a good job: Go for a product that contains at least 60% alcohol to ensure you’re killing any potentially harmful pathogens, Dr. Garden-Robinson says.

5. Keep the temperature of your food in check.

It’s the classic food safety advice for a reason: “In the temperature range from 60°F to 120°F, bacteria will grow best,” Dr. Garden-Robinson notes, so you’ll want to keep your dishes out of this “danger zone.” The easiest way to monitor your meals is by bringing a food thermometer, Donne says.

Here are the main things to keep in mind that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends:

  • If the outdoor temp is above 90°F, you should chill perishable food like salads, deli meat, fruits, and vegetables after one hour; cool after two hours if it’s not as hot. 
  • Store cold foods at 40°F or below. Keep perishable items on ice, Dr. Garden-Robinson says. See those frozen cubes starting to melt? That’s your cue to replace it with a fresh bag or finish those meals quickly.
  • Keep hot foods in warming trays to maintain a temperature of 140°F.

You might be anxious about getting side-eyed if you pull out a food thermometer ($7, Amazon) at a picnic, but at least you’ll know you’re doing your due diligence in keeping everyone safe. After all, you can’t eyeball those temp recs above, right? What’s more, immunocompromised folks face a higher risk of foodborne illnesses, so you don’t want to accidentally put them in a not-so-fun and potentially dangerous situation.

6. Use separate coolers when serving food too. 

Try a few: One for proteins like the fixings for your charcuterie board, another for your ready-to-eat foods and desserts, and a final one for your drinks, Dr. Garden-Robinson says. Not only does this prevent cross-contamination, but it also helps keep the important stuff cold for longer. Picnic-goers tend to open beverage coolers pretty frequently—after all, folks often need some type of refreshing mocktail or soda to cool off—and that resulting temperature variation could promote the growth of bacteria if you kept perishable foods in there too, she says. 

7. Don’t serve everything at once. 

Resist the urge to lay out all of your food to shoot a TikTok and serve your dishes in increments instead, Costantino says, so that the meals your guests aren’t eating right away can stay in the cooler. Try serving your friends in courses, Sanni says. For example, kick off the picnic with apps, and once those are all finished, bring out the sandwiches or other main entrees. If you have chilled desserts, like fruit salad or cheesecake, keep them in the cooler and only carry them out when people are ready, she says. 

The amount of food you put out matters too: A common mistake is cramming all of a dish into one big bowl. That takes longer for a crowd to finish, so it may end up spending too much time warming up outside, which can set the stage for bacterial growth, Donne says. Instead, divide up your dish into several smaller serving containers, bringing one out for your guests and leaving the others chilling in the cooler. Then, once they’ve devoured that first serving—because who can resist a superb potato salad recipe?—you can simply swap in the next bowl so everyone can start on fresh seconds.

You don’t want to leave your condiments like ketchup and relish out too long either. While they have enough acidity to help prevent bacteria growth, you should still pack them in the cooler when they’re not in use to avoid funky flavors, Costantino says.

8. Banish the bugs.

Nasty pests like flies are the worst picnic guests. But besides being annoying, they can also carry all sorts of germs, which can land in your food and spread in it, Dr. Garden-Robinson says. The best way to prevent your meals from those unwanted visitors is to keep your dishes covered, she says. Bring serving containers ($20, Amazon) with lids so your food isn’t left to the elements.

What to do after your picnic

9. Be mindful about taking food home with you.

We know, we know: Leftovers are the best part of any gathering. But with an outdoor event like a picnic, it’s not always a smart idea to stock up on them. If your food sat out for multiple hours while you and your friends got lost in an Uno game, it might not be worth saving. It’s best to follow the two-hour rule we mentioned above, Costantino says—or the one-hour recommendation if it’s a particular scorcher out. Basically, trash any perishable meals like lettuce wraps or egg salad that weren’t kept and maintained at the correct temp. 

Also, melting ice can mess with your food too, which can make taking it home less appealing—and potentially unsafe, Donne says. Moisture can seep into improperly sealed bags or containers, which can set the stage for bacterial growth. 

We hope by now that you’re a picnic-packing, food-safety pro. By keeping these tips in mind, you can sit back all summer and soak up the sun with your favorite people while eating delicious dishes—ones that won’t turn your stomach the next day.