This weekend marks Memorial Day in the U.S., a holiday generally recognized as the start of summer—and all of summer’s delightful culinary specialties. It’s a season for crisp salads, juicy fresh fruit, ice cream and—the favorite part for many of us—barbecue. Whether your grill of choice is on the roof of your city apartment, by the pool near your suburban home, or at your favorite local park alongside some trusty charcoal, safety should always be a priority when you’re cooking food outside. To be sure, foodborne illness is NOT invited to your cookout—but there are a few safety checks you’ll need to perform to ensure it’s not an unwanted guest!
For the food on the grill
Beef and turkey burgers, chicken, hot dogs, and fish are often the main course at a summer barbecue. However, they can also pose the greatest risk for foodborne illness. Raw meat, poultry and fish in particular carry bacteria that can spread to surfaces and other foods if the food is not handled properly. To make sure you stay as safe as possible while at the grill, follow these two big food-safety practices:
- First, wash your hands before handling any foods, and especially after handling raw meat. It is also advisable to use different cooking utensils for handling raw meat and cooked meat at the grills. Carefully monitoring how you handle raw meat from the start of grilling to the finished dish will help prevent any raw residue from transferring to your fully cooked food.
- Second, cook everything on the grill to a safe internal temperature. This will vary depending on what you are cooking, from spareribs to fish steaks to plant-based proteins. Be sure to have a food thermometer on hand, as well as the safe internal temperature chart found here.
While it’s no doubt important to prevent foodborne illness on the day of the barbecue, it’s also beneficial to consider long-term health concerns related to the carcinogenic compounds that can forming when grilling meat. Fortunately, there are a few ways to prevent this from happening. Minimizing the amount of time that fat from the meat directly touches the flame is key. A few tips? Use leaner pieces of meat, cook at a lower flame for a longer time, and use smaller cuts of meat that cook faster.
For those well-loved side dishes
While your grilled meat may take center stage, it won’t be a complete outdoor meal without those delicious supporting acts: side dishes! From potato salad to deviled eggs, watermelon slices, fresh greens, and sliced tomatoes, a wealth of choices awaits—and also requires extra attention when it comes to food safety.
In addition to continuing to wash your hands thoroughly before cooking, after handling raw meat, and before eating, try to minimize the amount of time your food spends in the temperature “danger zone” ahead of either eating it or storing it as leftovers. While you prepare to have your outdoor picnic or gathering, remember that cold foods should be stored below 40°F and hot foods should be kept warmed to a temperature above 140°F. The more time food spends between 40°F and 140°F, the more likely bacteria will grow. Any food kept in the “danger zone” temperature range for more than two hours should be discarded. And when summer days creep up to 90°F or above outside, the safe time to leave out un-stored food shrinks to just one hour before it’s time to discard it. To make things easier, keep cold foods in a cooler with ice until your meal is ready to be served; for hot foods, aim to use warming trays or thermal protectors to keep your food safely warmed. And plan to pack it all away soon after everyone is finished eating—you can even pack up leftovers right after serving if you have a good idea of how much your guests will want to eat.
A last point of caution before you hit the grill? One of the most important aspects of food safety is being mindful of cross-contamination. Be sure that your ready-to-eat foods, such as green salads, fresh fruit, and burger buns, are prepared and stored in separate containers from the raw meat that will go onto the grill. And always use different cutting boards, knives, and serving utensils for ready-to-eat and other fresh foods than you do for your meat. Same goes for raw versus cooked meat: Never re-use cooking or serving utensils that have touched raw meat for your finished dish without thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting them first.
Keep it safe this summer!
Wherever you choose to barbecue this summer, make sure you’re practicing safe food-handling practices. You may need to be extra vigilant to enjoy delicious meals in the sunshine, but your efforts will pay off—with lots of fun and no foodborne illness in sight!
This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.