SafeFood: Keep Calm and Picnic On

It is that time of year again where social gatherings are becoming more frequent, especially potlucks and picnics. I enjoy attending these events in order to catch up with friends and gobble down some delicious food! However, there can be dangers lurking in every dish. According to the CDC, researchers have identified over 250 harmful foodborne microorganisms that can cause illness, and almost 50 million people get sick from a foodborne illness each year. However, with a few tips it is easy to prevent foodborne outbreaks at potlucks and picnics! Providing safe food at potlucks is crucial, which means using quality ingredients, washing hands and surfaces before preparing, and keeping food at the correct temperatures before and during the event. When preparing your dish, check the final temperature to ensure it is cooked thoroughly. This means using a thermometer that is accurate! After arriving at the potluck, cold foods should be kept at 41°F or below, while hot foods should be held above 135°F. This prevents dishes from entering the temperature danger zone. If foods are kept out 4 hours or longer without proper temperature control, throw them out. Also, you can easily prevent foodborne illness by washing hands before it is time to eat at the gathering. If bathrooms are sparse, such as spending the day at the lake or a football game, setting up a portable handwashing station is easily done with a cooler with hot water, soap, paper towels, and a large bucket to wash hands over (see picture below). If this isn’t possible, then use hand wipes or even bring along wet washcloths in a Ziploc bag. Proper handwashing should take about 20 seconds total, enough to make it through the Happy Birthday song twice! Potlucks can be a nightmare for a person with a food allergy. It may be helpful to label dishes that contain one of the key allergens, in case someone does have a food allergy. The top 8 allergens that account for 90% of the food allergies are soy, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, fish, shellfish, wheat, and eggs. Recognize too that these sometimes sneak into foods or are packaged with a different name. Check out the Food Allergy Research and Education website for details about unexpected sources of allergens in foods.

I hope this helps you enjoy many more picnics and potlucks to come this summer!

Amber Baughman, Dietetic Intern




Catherine Hemphill Strohbehn has been a faculty member at Iowa State University in the Hospitality Management Program for 30 years. She is a State Specialist with Human Sciences Extension and Outreach at Iowa State University. As part of her work, she conducts research, develops educational materials and provides programs to help retail foodservices use their resources effectively and ensure safe food is served. Cathy is a registered dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a Certified Professional in Food Safety from the National Environmental Health Association.

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