Food Safety Tips for the Start of Grilling Season

by Kristen Desmond

Food Safety for Grilling Outdoors

Now that the weather's getting nicer, you'll want to enjoy every opportunity to combine the great outdoors and get-togethers with family, friends and food. While cooking outdoors is fun, it can also be a recipe for disaster. Biological, chemical and physical hazards can cause food-related illness. You can prevent food-borne illnesses by remembering some key guidelines for proper food handling when cooking — whether indoors or out. Handle food safely at your next cookout by focusing on three key elements: contamination, time and temperature.

Food Contamination

Food becomes contaminated when harmful living organisms are transferred onto it and those organisims have enough time, nutrients moisture and in some cases oxygen to reproduce.  For example, bacteria thrive in protein-rich food that is neutral or slightly acidic such as dairy foods, eggs, seafood, melon, meat, poultry, raw sprouts, soy protein foods and garlic/oil mixtures. Bacteria transferred onto food need about an hour to start reproducing and grow most rapidly between 41°F and 135°F.

Follow these pointers to prevent contamination:

  • Keep raw meat and its juices away from other food in the refrigerator, in the cooler and on work surfaces.
  • Wash knives, cutting boards, dishes and other utensils with hot, soapy water after exposure to raw meat or its juices.
  • Always wash raw fruits and vegetables before eating or preparing them.
  • When handling food, start with clean hands and always wash your hands after touching raw meat. Also, wash your hands after touching your face or hair, after sneezing, after petting the dog or shaking hands with a guest. It's easy to forget these things if you're playing both host and cook. The best rule of thumb is to wash your hands anytime you interrupt or change tasks.
  • When cooking outdoors, keep your food preparation and serving surfaces clean. Cover surfaces with a clean cloth, cutting board, parchment paper or aluminum foil. You don't want chemicals such as residue from weed killers or pesticides to contact your food. Also watch out for foregin objects that could get into your food when cooking outdoors, such as glass, hair, dirt or leaves.

Time and Temperature

When it comes to food safety, the amount of time it can be outside depend on both the food's temperature and the outdoor temperature.

Refrigeration. Only remove food from refrigeration to work with it or serve it. Chilled food can sit outside for up to six hours if the outside temperature stays below 70°F. If it's warmer than 70°F, you should discard cold food after two hours.

Thawing. Get your cookout off to a good start by defrosting meat in the refrigerator — never outdoors or on the counter at room temperature. If you're in a hurry, it's okay to defrost meat in the microwave as long as you cook it immediately. Another quick way to thaw meat safely is to submerge it in its packaging in a pan under cold, running tap water.

Cooking. When cooking meat, inserted a thermometer at the thickest point, away from bones, to check that it's cooked completely. Recommended cooking temperatures vary by meat type. General guidelines are to cook chicken breasts to an internal temperature of 165°F; ground meats and patties to 155°F; and steaks, chops, roasts and fish to 145°F.

Serving. Once food is cooked, serve it as quickly as possible. Keep cooked meat, vegetables and other hot food hot until serving. Stir hot foods frequently to evenly distribute the heat. Food heated to 135°F can be kept outdoors for up to four hours but should be eaten or discarded after that. The four hours includes travel time.

More tips. Other food safety tips for grilling include setting food out in small batches, keeping food covered between servings and always using fresh plates and utensils when going back for seconds.

It's delicious and fun to enjoy great food in the great outdoors. Don't let poor food handling spoil the experience.

Kristen Desmond is a trained chef, certified food handler and competitive runner. Read her healthy cooking and lifestyle blog at

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