Summer Food Safety

June 29, 2021

This post was written by Amber Lawrence, dietetic intern from the University of Utah.

Summer is here! And so is the hot weather. With many aspects of daily life returning to pre-pandemic norms, we have a lot to look forward to this season. It’s time for backyard barbecues, picnics, and reunions with family and friends. As we head outside to the grill or the firepit to enjoy good company and tasty food, it’s important to keep in mind a few principles of food safety.

Keep perishable foods chilled

When laughing with friends over burgers from the grill, we are probably not wondering how long the potato salad has been sitting out. But for a happy, healthy summer, we need to pay a little attention to two major issues in food safety—time and temperature.

For foods that require refrigeration, like meats, dairy products, eggs, cut fruit, and mayonnaise-based salads, remember the 2-hour rule: perishable foods should not be left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.

With the recent heat wave, the 2-hour window may need to be even shorter if perishable foods are outside in the heat or, worse, sitting in a hot car. The USDA recommends a 1-hour limit for perishable food when temperatures are above 90°F. If you have several errands to run after stopping at the grocery store, consider bringing a cooler or a thermal reusable box like this one to pack perishable items for the trip home.

For a meal outdoors, keep perishable items refrigerated right up until they are ready to be cooked or served. If socializing is likely to go on for a couple of hours or more, plan to take a break to put leftovers away as people finish eating. Consider using small serving bowls to limit the amount of food sitting out at any one time. Avoid refilling used bowls—leftover food residues can spoil and contaminate the fresh food. If you don’t happen to have dozens of small serving bowls sitting around in your kitchen cabinets, disposable bowls and plates may be a good one-time option to ease cleanup and keep serving vessels fresh. It’s especially important to keep meat cool until it is ready to be cooked and refrigerate any uncooked pieces as soon as possible. Thaw and marinate meat in the refrigerator rather than on the counter.

Avoid cross-contamination

Another risky area in food prep is cross-contamination. Keep raw meat separate from other foods, especially any food that is ready to eat. Knives and other utensils, cutting boards, and plates or dishes that come in contact with raw meat should not be used for other foods unless they are first thoroughly washed with hot water and soap. If possible, use separate utensils and equipment for raw meat. Avoid rinsing raw meat, as that is a good way to spread germs around the kitchen, and remember to disinfect any counter surfaces that come in contact with raw meat.

Avoid these scenarios where cross-contamination could occur:

  • Using the same tongs to handle raw and cooked burgers
  • Using the same stirring spoon for different items on the stove
  • Forming burger patties or cutting up poultry and then handling ready-to-eat food without washing hands in between
  • Reusing meat marinade as a sauce after the marinade has been in contact with raw meat

While rinsing meat is risky for food safety, rinsing fruits and vegetables gets the thumbs up. Any produce that is not prewashed should be rinsed before use. For firm fruits and vegetables, use a clean vegetable scrubber to rub them under running water. For more fragile items, gently rub with fingers. Do not use soap. Blot produce dry with a clean paper towel or kitchen towel.

When transporting food in a cooler, pay attention to stacking order. Place any uncooked meat at the bottom so that it doesn’t leak onto other foods, or use a separate cooler for meat. Ready-to-eat food should go on top.

Cook meat to the correct temperature

When preparing meat, the best way to tell if it is done is by using a meat thermometer, like this one. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. The correct internal temperature for doneness varies by the type of meat and the cut: 165°F for all poultry and precooked ham; 160°F for ground beef, pork, veal, and lamb; and 145°F for fresh beef, pork, veal, lamb, and fish with fins. Shrimp, lobster, crab, and scallops should be cooked until the flesh is white and opaque, and clams, oysters, and mussels should be cooked until the shells open. If you don’t already have a meat thermometer, investing in one is a win for taste and texture as well as food safety, because checking the internal temperature will help you avoid overcooking and drying out the meat.

By remembering a few simple practices for food safety, we can keep food poisoning off the guest list at summer gatherings!

If you have specific questions about food safety or would like individualized guidance in nutrition, reach out to the Harmons Dietitians at