A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist’s Rules for Summer Food Safety

It’s peak season for food poisoning so stay safe with these tips.

Medically Reviewed
summer cookout food safety
Extra caution is required when dining alfresco.Getty Images; Canva

Summer is my favorite season for spending time with family and friends. Whether it’s at the pool, a block party, or an old-fashioned picnic, you can’t beat getting outside for some fun and sun. Food is inevitably a big part of these gatherings, and summer is also my favorite time of the year to eat. With all the fresh local produce from the farmer’s market, summer salads are at their peak, and grilling season offers so many possibilities. Unfortunately, this is also the time of year when I’m most aware of how easy it is for all that good food to go bad.

An estimated 48 million Americans get food poisoning each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s one in six people! And if you have ever had a close encounter with some spoiled food (I did when I was younger), you know the effects are not pleasant: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.

Because of that personal experience and my background as an RD, food safety is near and dear to my heart. I would argue with my grandmother each holiday season as I tried to put leftovers in the fridge only to be reassured that I didn’t have to worry because “it’s already cooked.” Along with the winter holidays, summer is when my food safety radar kicks into high gear. People tend to leave food sitting out for much longer than they should as they visit with friends and family, disregarding the high temperatures that allow disease-causing bacteria to multiply.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there are several different types of foodborne pathogens (including bacteria, viruses, and parasites) that can get into your food and affect your health. Additionally, there are a number of ways that these pathogens can get into your food. Some are found in soil and may be on the surface of fruits and vegetables as a result. Others may be spread through contact with animals or even from person to person. The moral of the story is that there’s no one way to prevent food sickness — all steps have to be followed in order to keep your food safe.

In addition to the standard advice from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?to wash your hands thoroughly, keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat items, and cook food thoroughly, there are a few main food safety tips that are especially important during the summer:

Control the Temperature

One of the main ways to keep food safe for your family and friends is to make sure that it is cooked to and stays at the right temperature. Mainly, hot food should be kept hot and cold food should be kept cold. The range of temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F is referred to as “the danger zone,” according to the FDA. That description comes from the fact that foodborne pathogens grow most rapidly in this temperature span. As a result, the longer your food is kept in the danger zone, the greater the possibility of foodborne illness when you eat the food. Although cooking food to the right temperature will kill off any dangerous pathogens that may be present, it doesn’t mean that food can be left at room temperature forever. So pay attention to the temperature of your food as well as how long it sits out.

Keep an Eye on the Clock

As mentioned above, in addition to temperature, the amount of time that food is kept out is incredibly important when it comes to food safety. The FDA recommends that food not remain in the danger zone for more than two hours. On hot days (90 degrees F and above), this window is halved to only one hour. If the food at your outdoor gathering has to be left out longer for serving purposes, keep it hot with hot plates or Sterno gas canisters or keep it cold over ice.

Be Cautious With Higher-Risk Foods

Certain foods are at a higher risk of causing food poisoning than others, according to the CDC. These include items such as meat and seafood, bean sprouts, eggs, mayonnaise, and any foods that contain these items (i.e., egg salad). It’s not that these foods are off-limits during the summer months, but more care has to be taken when enjoying them. Make sure to get bean sprouts from a reliable source and eat them soon after purchasing them. It’s also a good idea to serve these higher-risk foods over ice when serving them outside so that they stay nice and cold.

Marinate in the Refrigerator

Summer is prime grilling time! Cooking outside is great because it keeps all the heat outside instead of in your home. When it comes to food safety, the only potential downside to grilling is how the food is marinated. It’s not uncommon for people to feel that because they’ve begun to prepare their food, it’s okay to marinate meat at room temperature. This couldn’t be further from the truth, though. As soon as the meat is removed from the fridge, that invisible two-hour clock starts counting down. To keep your food safe this summer (and all year-round), be sure to marinate your food in the refrigerator as recommended by the FDA.

The last thing I want to bring to a summer gathering is food poisoning, so my go-to potluck dish is fruit salad. It’s simple to prepare and always a hit, and it’s a lower-risk food safety-wise than many meat- or mayonnaise-containing dishes. That doesn’t mean that you can set it in the hot sun all day long without a care in the world, but the risk of foodborne illness is lower if you follow the advice above. The FDA also recommends giving fresh produce a thorough rinse before eating or cutting it in order to remove potential pathogens.

There are no “rules” to fruit salad — you can use whatever ingredients you have on hand and, better still, what is in season. The following recipe is my favorite fruit salad to make during the summer because it features ingredients that are at the peak of freshness, and the dressing not only adds flavor but also an extra layer of protection from harmful pathogens. It contains lemon juice, which helps prevent the fruit from browning and may also decrease the risk of foodborne illnesses, according to past research. It’s also includes honey for a touch of sweetness, and that may lend some antimicrobial effects, according to the Colorado Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence.

On really hot days or when you know that the fruit will sit out for a long time, bring a slightly larger bowl full of ice to set your fruit salad bowl on top of while it sits out. An occasional stir to make sure that all of the ingredients are staying equally cold will also help.

Summer Fruit Salad

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 2 tsp pure honey or maple syrup
  • 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 1 cup fresh raspberries
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries
  • 1 cup fresh blackberries
  • 1 cup fresh cherries, halved and pitted
  • 2 fresh peaches, sliced
  • 2 fresh plums, sliced
  • ? cup fresh mint leaves

Directions

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, honey, ginger, and salt. Set aside.
  2. Place fruit in a large serving bowl. Top with dressing and gently toss to evenly coat. Garish with fresh mint.

Nutrition per serving: 84 calories, 1g total fat (0g saturated fat), 2g protein, 20g carbohydrates, 4.5g fiber, 12.3g sugar (1.3g added sugar), 26mg sodium

Important: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Everyday Health.