Building a food-safe and healthy picnic

June 22, 2020
| Created by Megan GuynnMegan Guynn

Picnic season is in full swing! Enjoying a meal outside with friends or family is a big highlight of the summer weather. Unfortunately, one oversight in picnic preparation can turn your enjoyable picnic into a not-so-enjoyable case of foodborne illness. Whether you’re the “grill-in-the-park” or “hike-to-the-summit” picnicker, it’s important to follow these guidelines to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Food Safety Guidelines

  • Make sure your cooler, backpack, or basket, is clean and sanitized before you use it.
  • If you have access to running water at your picnic site, be sure to wash your hands before serving or eating foods. A good alternative is hand sanitizer.
  • If you won’t have access to running water, rinse your fruits and vegetables before you leave home.
  • In the cooler, keep raw meat for grilling separate from ready-to-eat foods.
  • Use one plate for the raw patties, and a new plate for the cooked patties.
  • Clean your hands after touching raw meat.
  • To avoid cross contamination, use separate grilling utensils for raw products and cooked ones.
  • If grilling on-site, it is a good idea to pack a thermometer with you.
  • Cook ground beef/poultry to 165 degrees.
  • Cook whole cuts of beef to 145 degrees.
  • Cook whole cuts of poultry to 165 degrees.
  • If you are cooking other foods like corn or pineapple, make sure they are above 140 degrees.
  • In a cooler with ice, perishable food can stay safe for up to 4 hours.
  • If you are not using a cooler, or the food is left out of the cooler, you have a two-hour window of safety. If it is 90 degrees or higher outside, the window of safety decreases to one hour. You should toss the food after these times.
  • Foods most at risk for foodborne pathogens include ready-made salads, like egg or potato salad, and cut melon. I would recommend taking extra precaution in the preparation and storage of these types of foods. 

Leftovers? Only keep leftover food if the total time outside of the cooler is within the one- to two-hour window, including your travel time back. If the ice in the cooler melts, do not keep the leftovers.

Building a Healthy Picnic

Now that you are sure to be food safe, it’s time to plan your healthy picnic menu! Try to get at least three food groups for a complete, balanced meal. For lunch, a source of protein, a fruit or vegetable, and a whole grain is a great place to start. Check out these recipes for a delicious picnic in the park:

Are you hiking without a cooler? Check out this simple and delicious shelf-stable lunch menu:

Questions? Reach out to our team of dietitians at, we’d love to help!

Happy picnicking!