How To Plan A Safe Picnic During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Safety -- whether it's to prevent COVID-19 or food poisoning -- is of the utmost importance this summer.

One in six. That’s the number of Americans who get sick each year from foodborne illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That amounts to 48 million people, and picnic season is rife with opportunities for food poisoning.

Foodborne illness can cause a temporary upset stomach. But it can also result in vomiting or more serious illnesses, especially for those who are young, older or immunocompromised.

A common cause of foodborne illness is failing to keep food at the appropriate temperature, which is especially dangerous as the weather gets warmer and we’re picnicking outdoors. Most of us know that perishable foods should never be kept out at room temperature (between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140) for more than two hours ― always keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold ― but there may be other food safety issues you’re overlooking.

And picnicking in 2020 requires another level of caution: While the CDC doesn’t note any direct links between handling food and the transmission of COVID-19, you’ll need to practice social distancing to stay healthy.

Here are experts’ best tips for picnicking safely this summer:

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Wash Your Hands Before Preparing Food

According to Richard Vayda, restaurant and culinary management instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, the easiest thing you can do is wash your hands before preparing any meals. Vadya said one of the most common ways people can get sick is by “not washing hands before, or while preparing different foods.” After all, your hands are an easy way for bacteria to travel directly into your food. So, whether you’re choosing to make a hot or cold dish, hands should always be clean, as well as any utensils or cutting boards they’re prepped on.

Be Mindful Of Any Food Allergies

Before packing your picnic basket or cooler, it’s important to take any food allergies into consideration, especially if you plan to share food with others.

“For a picnic, my overarching suggestion would be to completely avoid any allergens that anyone on the picnic suffers from,” said Shandee Chernow, president and founder of CertiStar, which helps the hospitality industry safely serve food-allergic guests. “If that’s not possible, I would want to make sure that the food including the allergen is packed in a separate container and even in a separate basket or bag. That way, if something spills or escapes its container, it isn’t contaminating the other foods.”

It’s always best to ask any attendees about food allergies in advance. Though allergies aren’t the same as food poisoning, the symptoms can be just as annoying (diarrhea, nausea and vomiting) or even worse, requiring medical attention.

Avoid Sharing

When you’re deciding what to pack, cold or shelf-stable items are the easiest ― think freshly cleaned fruit and veggies, chips and unopened salsa, or a cold sandwich. But Darin Detwiler, associate professor of food policy at Northeastern University, suggests taking it a step further, especially in light of COVID-19.

Detwiler advises prepping food in individual portions instead of serving family-style, or having everyone use common utensils. “Avoid sharing, such as many hands in a bowl or basket. This not only conflicts with social distancing, but cross-contaminates and creates dirty hands. Individual bags of chips, prepared baggies of snacks or fruits, and individual [sandwiches] would be safer,” he said.

Make sure to sanitize hands and surfaces before eating at your picnic location.
Poseidon_v via Getty Images
Make sure to sanitize hands and surfaces before eating at your picnic location.

Clean Hands And Surfaces

Once you’ve reached your picnic destination, it’s imperative to wash your hands, but this isn’t always possible, depending on the facilities. “Be sure to bring appropriate hand cleaning and sanitizing supplies,” Vayda advised. In addition to using sanitizer on your hands (if a bathroom isn’t available), Vayda suggests wiping down tables, chairs and benches when you arrive and before you unload your spread of food and drinks.

Beware Of Chemical Contaminants

It’s routine to apply sunscreen or bug spray while outdoors, but it’s best to do so away from any food. Vayda said chemicals such as bug spray that are sprayed near or on food can make someone sick, depending on the type, amount and the person. The CDC lists harmful toxins and chemicals as causes of foodborne illnesses. So, step away from the food or drinks while applying or reapplying any chemical sprays.

Stay 6 Feet Apart

Though a picnic can be an intimate affair, Detwiler, the author of ”Food Safety: Past, Present, and Predictions,” has one tip for maintaining social distancing: space food out.

“Have a basket of snack chip baggies in one place,” Detwiler suggested. “Place individual containers of drinks six feet away. Think about trying to avoid having everyone cram into one place or lining up close to each other to access foods.” Simply spacing out food, snacks or drinks means everyone won’t congregate in a single space and they can more easily adhere to social distancing.

Throw Away Food When Necessary

Finally, Vayda advises that before you pack up your picnic, be mindful of what you’re taking home and what needs to be thrown away. That chicken salad sandwich or charcuterie board with meat and soft cheeses that you didn’t finish? “If after four hours it is not consumed, the food must be thrown out,” he said. Though no one likes wasting food, it’s best to err on the side of caution and prevent yourself or someone else from getting sick.

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