Time to pack up the car for a day at the beach! Bathing suits, towels, hats, sunscreen, chips, baby carrots and hummus, and a cooler full of canned cocktails and beer. All set, right?
Not so fast, according to the food safety experts we interviewed.
Nasty things can happen when fresh foods are left out at temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (and below 140 degrees) for four-plus hours. That’s what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls the “danger zone,” where bacteria multiply rapidly and increase your risk of contracting a foodborne illness.
And on a hot, sunny day, when the outside temperature is closer to 90 degrees, the food-safety window is much smaller (about an hour). Bacteria can grow, spoiling food and turning your crisp green salad into wilted mush.
Still thinking of noshing on an over-warm tuna salad sandwich?
“Foodborne illness and spoilage are similar in that they come from microbial overgrowth and the toxins they produce,” said Tiffany Swan, a professional chef and food scientist. “So really, it comes down to what bacteria may be present in the food. Since we don’t know what bacteria is present most times, it is best to assume that if there is spoilage, there is risk for foodborne illness.”
Meaning if your food has gotten a bit funky, it could have bad bacteria. When in doubt, toss it out.
Whether you plan to spend a few hours or the whole day outside, choosing snacks and meals that travel well and packing them correctly is vital to preventing a night hunched over the porcelain throne.
Avoid bringing these foods to the beach.
Perpetually encouraged by health experts, fruits and veggies might not be your best bet at the beach.
“I would avoid bringing cut leafy greens like a salad, cut tomatoes and cut melon ― these foods, once cut, create a great environment for bacteria to grow,” explained Ellen Shumaker, director of outreach and extension for Safe Plates at North Carolina State University.
Like all living things, bacteria require certain conditions to grow and thrive. Warm, moist or damp environments (think the greenhouse that your plastic container of salad becomes in 90-degree weather) are ideal. Juicy produce can be especially tempting to bacteria that thrive and multiply in moist environments.
From a flavor perspective, you’ll likely not enjoy a wilted salad, the sure result of four hours of iceberg lettuce melting in the trunk of your car. Swan also dislikes summer fave watermelon, since it’s a “sand attractor.” Beach sand can contain fecal matter, which you don’t want to ingest.
Because hand-washing stations are not always accessible (or in existence) at beaches, bring a hand sanitizer or wet wipes for finger foods like berries or carrots. For those who insist on packing fruits and veggies, Shumaker advises bringing them in a cooler with ice.
Whether over a bonfire or on top of a tiny, rusted grill, someone is always taking their life into their hands by cooking meat at the beach. If you insist on cooking your raw meat at the picnic, bring a meat thermometer to ensure raw items are fully cooked. Or better yet, cook your burgers at home and warm them at the beach.
Genius hack: Turn your cooler into a heater.
“Preheat the cooler by placing several sealed containers of boiling water in the cooler for an hour in advance so that the cooler walls don’t just suck up the heat of the meat,” Swan suggested. “We want this to be at least 140ºF for the 4 hours or less that it is held, so I like to dig in soon after we get to the beach, to ensure the temperature hasn’t dropped too much.”
In a very Goldilocks-like dilemma, you’ll want to ensure that any protein you’re cooking at the beach is kept cold before you make it hot again. said Britanny Saunier, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education.
“If meat and poultry need to stay cool for a long period of time, they may be packed while still frozen,” Saunier said.
Make sure you pack enough ice to keep the cooler cold. Full coolers stay cold longer. Consider swapping out large half-empty ones for mini ones. Most importantly, only take food out when you’re ready to cook with it. Saunier said, “Don’t let food sit out for more than two hours. Reduce this time to one hour on a hot day (90ºF or higher).”
Another major issue is cross-contamination: Raw burger juice can drip onto burger buns or soda cans.
“We don’t have a good way to clean up at the beach,” Swan said. “Similarly, we can’t easily wash our hands with warm, soapy water after handling raw meats. If making burgers or grilling up chicken at the beach is part of the plan, I would make sure there is a bathroom with running water available.”
Food-safety pro tips include using a separate cooler for raw proteins to help prevent cross-contamination.
Google “what not to bring to the beach,” and the top result is anything with the internet’s most contentious condiment. But mayo’s bad rap is undeserved if you’re just talking about the condiment itself, according to Shumaker.
“Mayo tends to get a bad name with causing foodborne illness, but commercially packaged mayo has been processed in such a way that it won’t allow for pathogens to grow,” Shumaker said.
But don’t pack that potato salad just yet. Since you won’t be eating a tub of mayo straight, combining the condiment with proteins or starches (like an egg salad sandwich) changes the composition and makes it less stable. Keep these foods safe by storing them in a cooler with ice.
Alcohol (But Not For Food Safety Reasons)
Cracking open a canned cocktail or cold beer while floating in a lake is peak summer enjoyment. What’s not summer enjoyment is the nasty hangover after consuming six gin and tonics and nothing else in the blazing sun. So, if you forego packing food, drinking at the beach is not a good idea.
“Drinking on an empty stomach allows our bodies to absorb alcohol quicker than if there was food in our stomachs,” Marissa Meshulam, a registered dietitian, explained. “Plus, alcohol lowers our blood sugar and promotes dehydration (hence what you feel on a hangover), so drinking on empty is never a good idea. I recommend bringing some water, rehydrating foods and something with a little fat or protein to help slow down the absorption of alcohol and prevent you from feeling like crap!”