Outdoor Food Safety for Any Summer Event

A UT Health Austin dietitian advises practicing outdoor food safety during hot summer days to protect you and your loved ones.

Reviewed by: Carla Cos, RDN, LD
Written by: Kaylee Fang

An older man wearing a black apron and a green shirt hands a younger kid a plate of barbecued food.  Another middle aged woman looks on and smiles. They're standing around a grill at an outdoor backyard party.

When preparing an outdoor meal, a top priority for most Central Texans is avoiding ants and sunburn. However, without proper food safety measures, a relaxing picnic or cookout can result in serious health issues. UT Health Austin dietitian Carla Cos, RDN, LD, advises practicing outdoor food safety to ensure a fun and healthy time for you and your loved ones.

“We really want to make sure that we take food safety seriously, and make sure that we’re taking all the necessary precautions because bacteria do multiply very quickly the hotter it gets,” says Carla.

Proper Storage

Cold Food

A cooler is the best method to store refrigerated food. Cold foods should be stored below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Consider packing:

  • Ice
  • Frozen gel packs
  • Frozen water bottles

In the heat, frozen water bottles will eventually melt, at which point you can serve cool water later in the day to your friends and family. It’s a desirable alternative as opposed to ice. Beverages are typically sought during summer days and will lose chill temperatures when the cooler is constantly being opened. If you plan on packing other beverages, such as sodas and teas, consider bringing a separate cooler just for these drinks.

Hot Food

If you’re cooking raw meat and you want to keep it warm, then you can have it near the grill or griddle. However, make sure it’s not placed on top of the hottest part of the grill, but to the side to prevent drying out. Hot foods should be stored above 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Prepared Food

When bringing prepared food from home, try bringing it in a leakproof container. To prevent juices or cross-contamination, consider using:

  • Tupperware
  • Ziplock bags
  • Vacuum pouches

Danger Zone

“The biggest mistake is leaving food out for too long. That’s when people can get sick because they’re distracted by talking with family, in the pool, and food just stays out, explains Carla.

Keep in mind the danger zone of food is anything between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. A general recommendation is not to let food be in that danger zone for more than two hours.

According to FDA, if outdoor temperatures are above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, food should only be left out for an hour. Ideally, keep everything in proper storage until people are ready to be served. Once people are finished eating, immediately put it back in its proper place.

Food Safety Tips

Separating foods

You can prevent food-borne illness by separating foods. Foods such as meats and raw eggs shouldn’t come in contact with ready-to-eat foods. Have vegetables, fruits, and even prepared salads in separate containers. Ideally, all foods should be in separate containers, and potentially even separate coolers.

If you’re going to have a cookout and you plan to bring meats such as raw hamburgers, ribs, or chicken fajitas, then these foods should be separated from the prepared foods. Therefore, the juices aren’t mixed with fresh foods.

Cooking meat

Make sure to cook raw foods to the correct temperature. For poultry products, including chicken or turkey, the safe cooking temperature is 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The best way to determine whether the meat is ready is to bring a food thermometer. Although it may not be a frequent practice in a picnic setting, it can prevent a trip to the hospital.


Wash or sanitize your hands and surfaces. It’s easy to forget proper hygiene when the outdoors doesn’t feel like the cleanest place. Wash all produce at home before packing it. Consider cutting foods such as lettuce, tomatoes, and watermelon, when you have easy access and plenty of work surface to minimize contact with bacteria.

Foods to Avoid

Mayonnaise, dairy, or seafood-based foods tend to spoil the fastest in the heat. There’s an elevated risk of having harmful bacteria in typical picnic foods, such as potato salads or egg salads. Be mindful of keeping these foods at the appropriate temperature if you’re going to pack them.

Alternative Foods to Pack

Any items that don’t need refrigeration are ideal to pack for a picnic or cookout. Instead of having fruit salad, try fruits that don’t need to be cut, such as mandarin oranges, bananas, pears, and apples. Grapes are also a great alternative because you can freeze them and enjoy a nice cold treat for later. Baked chips or tortilla chips are a better alternative to potato salad. Salads such as bean, pasta, or quinoa can have ingredient substitutes of using olive oil and vinegar instead of mayo based. Instead of bringing pre-made refrigerated tuna salad, try tuna pouches to make sandwiches on the spot.

Examples of convenient foods to pack that don’t require refrigeration are:

  • Trail mix with nuts
  • Dried fruits
  • Granola bars
  • Crackers
  • Nut butter sandwiches
  • Jerky
  • Baked chips
  • Cookies
  • Brownies

“Have a good balance of things that don’t require refrigeration and then those that might” suggest Carla, “so you don’t have a cooler full of several perishable side items.”

Depending on your specific healthcare needs, a dietitian may be consulted for outdoor food-related activities and your healthcare journey at UT Health Austin. For more information or make an appointment with UT Health Austin by calling 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or visiting online here.


  1. https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-s…
  2. https://www.fda.gov/media/1070…

About UT Health Austin

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