By Monique Richard MS, RDN, LDN
As summer heats up, picnics prevail and family gatherings fill the calendar. The farmer’s markets are hopping as warm weather recipes are whipped up in kitchens across the country. Whether it be a parade, an Independence Day celebration or family reunion, the joy of a social gathering around some summer favorites is one of the many pleasures that is looked at with affection this time of year. However, if precaution and preparation are not acknowledged regarding food safety there can be a devious downside to packing up the family and cooler. According to the CDC, 48 million Americans, or one in six people get sick from contaminated food.1 Some of the most publicized culprits such as salmonella, E. coli and Listeria often grab the headlines, but there are many more harmful pathogens as well such as botulism, campylobacter and clostridium perfringens.1,2 Any of these can put a damper on laughter and fun in a hurry with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cramps. Young children, individuals with immune-compromised conditions and the elderly can be especially vulnerable to the consequences and dangers of food borne illnesses.
Often mishandling of food direct from its source or en route are one of the more common ways the food-borne illness can rear its ugly head. When it comes to food safety two important words to understand are ‘TIME’ and ‘TEMPERATURE.’ How long something is out, how long it is cooked and to what temperature are all closely related to contributing to either killing the bacteria or feeding it. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service site has these helpful tips when thinking about TIME and TEMPERATURE for food safety2:
• Food is usually safe if left out for 2 hours or less, EXCEPT when outside temperatures are above 90 °F, food should not be left out over 1 hour (especially items with creamier bases or that contain egg products like Cole slaw, potato salad, cheeses, tuna fish salad etc.)
• Let frozen items unthaw properly before cooking or preparing (overnight in the refrigerator, or under cool running water)
• Be patient when cooking to ensure proper internal temperature is reached, taking the time necessary for thorough cooking is essential. Be sure to note that burgers may turn brown before proper temperature is reached due to the cooking method and oxidation.
Investing in a good food thermometer is highly recommended and bringing it with you to the cookout assures proper internal cooking temperature for grilled meats. Colder items can be a little tricky to keep track of but keep in mind it does not take long for dangerous bacteria like E. coli and staphylococcus to spread in the warm and moist environment and ruin a perfectly good afternoon, no matter the food. Minimum internal temperatures, measured before removing from heat include:
• 145°F – Shellfish & fish (steaks, fillets, whole)
• 145°F – All raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts. Allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming.
• 160°F – All raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal.
• 165°F – All poultry
Additional Food Safety Precautions
S-E-P-E-R-A-T-E, don’t cross-contaminate, cue the lyrics “You gotta keep ’em separated.” Cross-con-
tamination happens when bacteria from one thing touches another; it can be transferred from hands, utensils, counters, pretty much anything. Cross-contamination during preparation, grilling, and serving food is a prime cause of foodborne illness. Keep these steps in mind to avoid contamination:
• Wrap raw meats securely; avoid raw meat juices from coming in contact with ready-to-eat food.
• Wash and sanitize plates, utensils, and cutting boards that held the raw meat or poultry thoroughly before using again for cooked food.
• Wash hands thoroughly with soap and hot water for thirty seconds (sing ‘Happy Birthday’ or the alphabet song to yourself) between preparing items (i.e. wrapping meat then cutting vegetables), before and after grilling/cooking. Or pack clean, wet, disposable washcloths or moist towelettes and paper towels for cleaning hands and surfaces, if resources are limited.
• Switch out the ice as soon as it begins melting
• Layer containers and prepared food with several inches of ice
• Keep coolers in coolest part of car, out of sun if possible
• Store leftovers immediately, and re-cover unused items – “When in doubt, throw it out.” (Also be mindful of food waste, prepare only what will be mostly likely consumed, share with neighbors and others and use common sense to save food and garbage waste).
Make some healthy changes
Research continues to show the health risks of consuming processed meats, such as hot dogs; combine those nutritional disadvantages with the fact that carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) are being used to cook and there may be enough information to reconsider choices from the grill. The good news is that there are glorious alternative picnic options that are nutrient-rich, healthy and delicious!! More tips to increase nutrition and flavor for that summer party include:
• Try grilling pineapple, watermelon, and fruit skewers for a twist on flavoring your fruit options.
• Marinate onions, peppers, and portabella mushrooms for a satisfying grilled sandwich on a whole wheat bun.
• Make a mango salsa, black bean and corn salad, or Dijon dill potato salad to ramp up the antioxidants and polyphenols plus it will add flare to over-served originals.
• Stock up on dry goods like baked chips, pretzels, dried fruit, nuts and other non-perishables.
• PB & J sandwiches made with fresh strawberries and artisan bread are a classic favorite with a grown-up touch.
• Hummus wraps and pinwheels made with whole-wheat tortilla shells are fun and a snap to make.
• Salads and cold gazpachos make packing for a picnic easy and healthy with lots of plant-based benefits.
• Pack up plenty of healthy beverages (low-sugar, minimally processed like frozen fruit in water, or fresh brewed green tea), potable (drinking) water, sunscreen, and equipment for fun filled activities and enjoy a favorite summertime outing.
Mo’s Couscous Salad
• 1 Box Whole-Grain Couscous (prepare as directed), can also use bulgur or other similar grain
• 1 can chickpeas, drained
• 1 can cannellini or navy beans, drained, slightly rinsed
• 1 can sliced black olives
• 15-20 cherry tomatoes sliced in thirds
• ¾ cup fat-free feta cheese crumbles
• ½ cucumber diced in small cubes
• 2 scallions, chopped
• 1 Packet Zesty Italian Dressing (prepare as directed — or make your own seasonings with oil and vinegar)
• Pepper and fresh garlic to taste.
Combine all ingredients when couscous is cool and toss gently.
Serve with large romaine leaves, as garnish or to make lettuce rolls.
Feel free to substitute kidney beans, or add sun-dried tomatoes or pimentos instead of cherry tomatoes.
Nutrition: Serves 8; 247 calories, 6.6 g Total Fat, 2.7g Saturated fat, 0.6g Polyunsaturated fat, 1.1g Monounsaturated fat, 12mg Cholesterol, 684 mg Sodium, 329mg Potassium, Total Carbohydrates: 38 grams, Dietary fiber: 8g, Sugar: 2g; Protein: 10g; Calcium 12%, Vitamin A: 3.6%, Vitamin C: 10%, Iron: 14%