TUPELO • What’s one way to ruin a perfectly good 4th of July picnic?
“The biggest mistake people make at picnics is leaving food out too long – the temperature danger zone,” said Emily Littlejohn, a registered dietitian at the North Mississippi Medical Center Wellness Center.
“When it’s 90 degrees out, like a typical Mississippi summer day, food doesn’t need to be left out more than an hour,” she said. “If you’re inside, then no more than two hours. The longer it stays out, the greater the risk for food-borne illness.”
Cleanliness is also important to stave off food poisoning, she said.
“Everything should be clean,” Littlejohn said. “Clean hands, clean surfaces. Don’t use the same surface for raw meat and cooked meat. Don’t cross-contaminate cooking and serving utensils.”
Food-borne illnesses peak in the summer because people are cooking more outdoors, eating at picnics and taking camping trips.
“Indoor cooking has safety controls, like regulated temperature, hot and cold water, refrigeration,” she said. “Bacteria multiply faster in outdoor temperatures.”
Instant-read or meat thermometers can help the home chef cook protein to a safe temperature, Littlejohn said. That means 160 degrees for hamburgers and hotdogs, 165 degrees for chicken and 145 degrees for steaks and pork chops. Casseroles and leftovers should be reheated to a temperature of 165 degrees.
“Foods that are meant to be eaten cold – potato salad, pasta salad, cole slaw, deviled eggs – should go no higher than 40 degrees,” she said. “Make sure you have a cooler to put cold foods into for transport to the gathering and to take leftovers home.”
Littlejohn suggests if you can serve cold food on ice, do so.
“Put the platter of salad on ice if you can,” she said. “If you’re making deviled eggs, refrigerate the tray of eggs. The cold tray will help when serving.”
Littlejohn said the 4th of July is one of the biggest holidays in her husband’s family and she always tries to take something healthy to the gathering. One of her favorites is a Red, White and Blue Salad, with fresh spinach, feta cheese, blueberries and sliced strawberries topped with a balsamic vinaigrette.
“Even fruit can be dangerous if it’s left out too long,” she said. “Just remember to keep raw and cooked foods separate, keep cold things cold, keep hot things hot, and don’t leave food out all day.”
The most common food-borne illnesses are salmonella and e-coli, she said. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and gastric distress.
“If you have these symptoms or dehydration that lasts more than 24 hours, it’s time to see a doctor,” she said.