With the unofficial start of summer now underway, it's time to get the grill dusted off and fueled up for blissful outdoor dining.
The kids' soccer games, the family picnics and reunions, and all the backyard barbecues in between means more meals are eaten outside and on-the-go. But if crucial safety rules aren't followed regarding food preparation and storage, you could be ringing the dinner bell for all sorts of uninvited microscopic guests. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that each year, 48 million people become sick, nearly 130,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die due to food borne illness.
It seems so simple an oversight to cause such a dangerous situation, but unwashed hands are a main cause for illness from food. Most people — hopefully — know to wash their hands after using the restroom, but doing so after changing a diaper or playing with the dog might not happen in the hustle and bustle of a busy family picnic. At the very least, have hand sanitizer and wet wipes within reach for a quick and easy clean-up.
Marinating meats to prepare on the grill is also a huge blind spot in food safety with plenty of room for error. The Georgia Department of Agriculture recommends that chicken be marinated for no more than two days, while beef and steaks may soak for five. Just make sure to marinate everything in the refrigerator (never on the countertop) and do not use that same marinade later as a sauce for cooked food unless that portion of liquid was put aside beforehand and never used on raw meat.
Cross-contamination can happen enroute from grill to table as well. Burgers and steaks that are cooked to perfection yet carried to the table on the same plate that previously held the raw version can mean transfer of bacteria. Keep plenty of clean utensils and plates beside the grill for transport to avoid making this common mistake.
Activities in the hot sun undoubtedly mean lots of trips to the cooler for cold drinks. It's a good idea to pack all beverages in one cooler and all food items in another to keep the latter as cold as possible before preparation and serving. Once prepared, the Food and Drug Administration recommends avoiding letting food linger for more than two hours in what's referred to as the "danger zone" — between 40 and 140 degrees — as bacteria can multiply rapidly.
That time limit drops to just one hour when outside temperatures are above 90, which isn't uncommon for an Atlanta summer. So keep hot food hot (above 140 degrees) and cold food cold (cooler than 40 degrees) until serving time.
But remember: If in doubt, throw it out. There's always a drive-thru on the way home.
Summer grilling safety tips:
- Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and for ready-to-eat items like veggies or bread.
- Keep cooler closed and out of direct sunlight.
- Always use a clean plate or tongs for serving cooked food. Never reuse items that touched raw meat or poultry to serve the food once it is cooked.
- Marinate foods in the refrigerator, never on the kitchen counter or outdoors. Don't reuse marinade.
- Once food is served, it should not sit out for longer than two hours (or one hour if the outdoor temperature is above 90 degrees). If it does, discard it.
- Check for detached bristles from a bristle brush that might have made their way into your food.