Eight Summer Cookout Health Tips

Believe it or not, that backyard barbecue might be a threat to your health.


Summer grilling photo via shutterstock

The Fourth of July is just around the corner, and with it, an onslaught of summer cookouts. While the dessert table probably seems like the biggest threat to your health at these events, Cindy Rice, a registered sanitarian and certified food safety professional at Eastern Food Safety in Braintree, says otherwise.

Harmless as they seem, Rice says summer cookouts are prime territory for time- and temperature-related food spoiling as well as cross-contamination, both of which can cause serious health problems. Here are her best tips for staying healthy this party season:

1. Keep an eye on the clock. Rice says food kept out of refrigeration for two hours or longer can start to grow bacteria, and that timeline can be even faster in hot summer temperatures. “Bacteria generally grows best in foods that are high in proteins or carbohydrates, contain moisture, and are not too acidic,” she warns. “So these would be hamburgers, steaks, chicken, salads, cut fruits — just about anything that is popular in a summer cookout.” And contrary to popular belief, it isn’t the mayonnaise in potato and pasta salads that put them in danger of spoiling. “Surprisingly, it’s the meat or starch in the salad that is most risky and not the mayonnaise, since mayonnaise tends to be too acidic for bacteria to grow,” Rice says.

2. Ditch the buffet table. Rice says its safest to serve foods out of temperature-regulating containers like slow cookers or coolers to keep dishes at their proper temperature. Resist the urge to throw it all on the picnic table and forget about it.

3. Grill responsibly. Rice says temperature is the only legitimate way to know if meats have been cooked enough. “We cannot tell by the color alone of meats, as dyes and age of meats can change their appearance and give a false sense that the meat has been cooked enough,” Rice says. Meats and fish should be cooked to 145 degrees, hamburgers and sausages to 160 degrees, and poultry to 165 degrees, she explains.

4. Store your buns safely. Juices from meats on the grill or waiting to be cooked are a major source of contamination, Rice says. She recommends keeping ready-to-eat foods and buns away from raw and cooking meat to keep them germ-free.

5. Plan your errands wisely. “When shopping for a party, plan your activities so that you can refrigerate your meat and poultry items as quickly as possible,” Rice says. “Keeping a cooler or cooler bags in your car can help protect these foods until they are safely refrigerated.”

6. Splurge on two bags of ice. No more using the ice in your communal drink bucket for beverages, Rice says. “Keep in mind that ice is food,” she cautions. “It can carry bacteria and should not be used in drinks, as it can transfer the bacteria to the beverages and make someone sick.”

7. Keep your friends in line. There are always party guests who are eager to help with the cooking, but Rice says it’s important to make sure they’ve washed their hands before they step up to the grill. Same goes, she says, for helping to serve food or put out dishes.

8. Follow your kindergarten guidelines. Last but not least, follow the golden rule: “Be careful of double dipping!”