Tips for a Healthy Backyard (or Elsewhere) Feast

12 ways to avoid food poisoning and focus on the fun

By Mark Moran, MPH
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Between planning your guest list, putting the final touches on your menu, and grocery shopping, it may be hard to keep all the dos and don'ts of food preparation straight too. Here's a handy checklist you can use to ensure your holiday cookout or picnic is nothing but fun:

  • Wash hands thoroughly and often. It's the cardinal rule of food preparation, but easily forgotten. When broken it's one of the principal causes of food contamination.
    • Serve food on clean platters. Sounds obvious, but its easy to carry raw meat to the grill on a plate, then carry the cooked food on the same plate to the picnic table. Don't do this unless you've washed the plate in between.
    • Cook meat, poultry, and eggs thoroughly. Using a thermometer to measure the internal temperature of meat is a good way to be sure that it is cooked sufficiently to kill bacteria. For example, ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F. Eggs should be cooked until the yolk is firm.
    • Separate foods. Don't cross-contaminate one food with another. Avoid cross-contaminating foods by washing hands, utensils, and cutting boards after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry and before they touch another food.
    • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Do not leave food at room temperature longer than two hours -- one hour when summer room temperatures are hot.
    • Thaw foods in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Also make sure that meat juices can't drip onto other foods.
    • To store hot foods, refrigerate immediately in shallow containers to cool them more quickly.
    • Wash produce. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in running tap water to remove visible dirt and grime. Remove and discard the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage. Because bacteria can grow well on the cut surface of fruit or vegetable, be careful not to contaminate these foods while slicing them up on the cutting board, and avoid leaving cut produce at room temperature for many hours.
    • Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Bacteria can grow quickly at room temperature, so refrigerate leftover foods if they are not going to be eaten within four hours. Large volumes of food will cool more quickly if they are divided into several shallow containers for refrigeration.
    • Avoid preparing food for others if you yourself have a diarrheal illness.
    • Changing a baby's diaper while preparing food is a bad idea that can easily spread illness.
    • When in doubt, throw it out. If you have any question in your mind about a food's freshness or safety, toss it. Better to be safe than sorry

    Originally published May 13, 2003
    Medically updated May 12, 2005.


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