Healthy You - Every Day

How to Keep Your Picnic From Turning Poisonous

Mind your ‘peas and cukes’ to eat safely outdoors

Chicken Kabobs on a grill

One of the joys of summer is packing up a basket with your favorite foods and heading to a park or beach. Or simply turning on the grill and relaxing in your backyard. These activities involve eating outdoors. And that requires a bit of thought to avoid complications from contaminated food.

When food is contaminated by bacteria, viruses or parasites, people who eat it can become sick. In the summer this is a concern because bacteria multiply rapidly at warm temperatures. Food is in the “danger zone” when it reaches 40 F–140 F and then remains at those temperatures for more than two hours. If the temperature outside is 90 F or above, that window decreases to one hour.  

“Food poisoning is a general term we use for consequences of eating food that is left out or isn’t properly stored. It can be caused by a variety of pathogens,” says physician assistant Aron Zarowsky, PA-C, with LVPG Family Medicine–Hometown. “Symptoms can start anywhere from an hour to several hours after you eat the food. A more serious case may not show up for days or weeks.”

Is it ‘pasta-tively’ food poisoning?

Zarowsky says to look for symptoms such as abrupt onset of abdominal pain and nausea. “If you feel sick, consider what you have recently eaten. Think about whether things were left out too long, whether they were undercooked or if there was cross-contamination, such as if raw meat or poultry was stored or placed with other foods,” he says. “You can also talk with other people who ate the same food and see if they have the same symptoms.” 

According to Zarowsky, it’s important to distinguish between mild and serious illness. Dehydration always warrants the emergency department at the hospital. These symptoms are serious, and you should seek emergency care if you experience them:

  • Diarrhea (six watery bowel movements in 24 hours)
  • Blood in a bowel movement or vomit 
  • Fever greater than 101.3 F
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Signs of dehydration (inability to tolerate liquids, dry mouth, lethargy, dizziness, confusion, dark urine, headache, muscle cramps)

Parents should get care for their child if they experience:

  • Unusual changes in behavior or thinking
  • Excessive thirst and little or no urination
  • Weakness or dizziness
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than a day
  • Vomiting often
  • In children under age 2, any fever
  • In children older than 2, fever of 102 F or higher

If your symptoms do not fall into the above categories, Zarowsky advises to drink fluids to prevent dehydration, including those containing electrolytes. Eat small meals and consider a diet of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast (BRAT). Eat what you can tolerate and what’s easy. And rest.

He says that if symptoms do not resolve within 72 hours, go to an emergency department as it may indicate a more serious bacterial infection.

‘Turnip the beet’ on food safety

The least of your concerns on a picnic are the ants. It’s more important to take care in cleaning, preparing and storing food so it remains edible and does not make you and your family sick. Start with packing your picnic:

  • Make sure to include ice or frozen gel packs for your cold foods. Keep your food in a cooler at
    40 F or below until served. Put foods like chicken salad in individual containers and place them directly on ice.
  • Keep hot foods at or above 140 F. Wrap them in insulated bags or containers until serving time.
  • Place leftovers in containers and store them in a cooler immediately. Limit the number of times you open the cooler, so contents stay cold longer.
  • Follow the guidelines above about food after serving: Let it stay out no more than two hours, or one hour if the outdoor temperature is above 90 F. If it sits, discard it.

From the experts

at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

People often think mayonnaise is the cause of foodborne illness in picnic foods such as chicken, tuna and egg salad or when spread on bread in a sandwich. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that, because mayonnaise is made with acid (vinegar or lemon juice), it tends to prevent bacterial growth. Usually it's the meat, poultry, fish or eggs in a sandwich kept out of the refrigerator for more than two hours that is the medium for bacteria to grow.

Both vomiting and diarrhea can cause dehydration – or losing water, salts and minerals – which is the most common complication of food poisoning. While healthy adults can make sure they drink enough fluids, children, older adults and those who are ill may not be able to replenish their fluids adequately. People who become dehydrated may need fluids administered directly into the bloodstream at the hospital. Severe dehydration can cause organ damage, other severe disease and death if not treated.


Here are some more guidelines for eating safely

Tips on cleaning

  • Bring towels, soap, water or hand sanitizer for keeping your hands and surfaces clean.
  • Pack extra plates and never reuse plates that held raw meat or poultry.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood securely wrapped so their juices don’t contaminate the rest of your picnic.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water before packing them in the cooler.  And –  yes – dry them with a clean cloth towel or paper towel. (Packaged fruits and vegetables labeled “ready-to-eat” need not be washed.)

Tips on cooking

Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat, poultry and egg dishes.

  • Hamburgers, sausages and other ground meats should reach 160 F (71 C).
  • All poultry should reach a minimum temperature of 165 F (74 C).
  • Whole cuts of pork, lamb, veal and beef should be cooked to 145 F (63 C).
  • Cook fish to 145 F (63 C).
  • Cook eggs until yolks are firm and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.

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