What makes summer fun – the picnics, the cookouts, the family reunions, the road trips, the beach vacations – often involves traveling with food.
It’s a challenge to keep food safe from pesky bacteria that can make people sick and choose dishes that provide maximum flavor.
We gathered advice from experts well-versed in the art of traveling with food: DeeDee Stovel, a former caterer from Northern California who wrote “Picnic: 125 Recipes with 29 Seasonal Menus,” and two North Carolina authors who have written tailgating cookbooks, Debbie Moose of Raleigh, author of “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home,” and Taylor Mathis of Charlotte, author of “The Southern Tailgating Cookbook.”
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• Follow sanitary practices when preparing food. Wash hands before handling ingredients, especially raw meat. Don’t cut raw meat and vegetables on the same cutting board.
• Choose ingredients that are safer to eat outdoors in hot weather. Skip mayonnaise-based dressings for salads; try dressings with oil and vinegar or some other acid. Avoid dips and spreads that are heavy on dairy products, such as cream cheese or heavy cream; serve salsa instead.
• Chill food thoroughly before packing it in a cooler. Stovel said, “Don’t cool (food) in the cooler.”
• Cold food needs to be kept at 40 degrees or below to prevent bacterial growth. The key, Moose said, is “ice and more ice and then get some more ice.” If you don’t want to deal with coolers filled with water at outings’ end, Stovel offers this advice: Fill clean, recycled milk containers with water, leaving some space at the top for ice to expand. Freeze until solid. Use those blocks of ice to keep food cold.
• Keep raw meat separate from other foods to prevent cross-contamination. Pack burger patties, marinated chicken or other raw meat in a separate cooler, and label it as being used for that purpose. The last thing you want, Moose said, is someone grabbing a cup of ice from the cooler that held raw meat.
• Keep ice for drinks and even beverages in a separate, labeled cooler. If more ice is needed to keep food cold, raid the beverage cooler. “If the choice is between keeping soda cold and keeping raw meat cold,” Moose said, “nobody has died from drinking a warm soda, so act accordingly.”
• Consider investing in equipment such as insulated bags to tote food to outings and to wrap around casserole dishes. Reusable ice packs come in many shapes and sizes: small bags, large blocks, can coolers, flexible blankets and more. Retailers also sell electric coolers that can plug into a car’s outlet or cigarette lighter; prices range based on size from $60 to $150. About the latter, Stovel said, “we got this when we were traveling across the country.”
• Leave food in the cooler until ready to serve. Once food is served, it should sit out no longer than 2 hours, or 1 hour if temperatures are above 90 degrees. “Pay attention to what the weather is going to be like,” Mathis said. And keep track of the time.
• Keep hand sanitizer and disposable gloves on hand, especially if you are handling raw meat to grill. “You don’t have the sink to wash your hands,” Moose said.
• Some ingredients need to wait until the last minute: Slice tomatoes to top burgers or salads. Wait to toss salads with dressings until right before serving. “I like to dress salads on site so things don’t get soggy,” Mathis said. Another tip: Pack dressing in a recycled water bottle or a Mason jar.
• Put prepared foods on ice to serve. Mathis recommends using sets of nesting bowls for this purpose: Place the food in the smaller bowl and set it inside a large bowl of ice. Other ideas: Use disposable lasagna pans filled with ice, or even a large black trash bag filled with ice, nestled around the food container. “It’s not going to win any decorating awards, but it will do the job,” Moose said.
• If you do a lot of outdoor entertaining, consider investing in some insulated serving bowls that are placed in the freezer beforehand; prices range from $55 to $130.
• Enjoy yourself. “Just have fun picnicking,” Stovel said. “I think it’s one of the best ways to entertain. The food is all prepared, and you just have to bring it, spread it out and the party’s on.”