How Long Can I Safely Leave Food Sitting Out at a Cookout?
With barbecues, picnics, and beachside days, the opportunities to enjoy food outdoors are plentiful. What else is plentiful on these summer days? The opportunities to get sick from spoiled food. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there are an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. every year. Five thousand people die as a result of their food-related illness.
The heat of the day can turn creamy, cooled potato salad into a pit of stomach-churning bacteria. Hamburger patties and brats sit by the grill for hours after everyone’s made their plate; they could be setting you up for a day in bed. Granny’s famous fruit pie will be infamous once you spend a few hours in the hospital recovering from food poisoning.
If you’re headed to a potluck picnic and want to avoid poor food safety practices, keep these tips in mind so you—and everyone at the gathering—will be safer, healthier, and a whole lot happier.
How long is it safe to leave food out?
The general rules are easy to remember:
- Temperatures between 40 and 89°F - 2 hours maximum
- Temperatures above 90°F - 1 hour maximum
Important note: If foods are in direct sunlight—that is, not on a patio, pavilion, or other covered area—the lifespan may be even shorter. Sunlight quickly heats up temps, shortens stability, and may even produce “off” flavors in foods. If and when you can, protect your picnic spread by keeping it under the protective cover of a shade-providing structure.
Foods that have a two-hour window
Even if you’ll cook it eventually in a casserole or sandwich, you should not leave raw meat sitting at room temperature for more than two hours. Bacteria starts to grow rapidly the moment the meat’s temp falls. Instead of thawing meat on the counter, put it in the fridge and let it de-ice in about 24 hours. Need it faster than that? You can thaw raw meat in water. Pour up a bowl of cool water. Put the meat (that’s stored in a water-tight zip-top bag) into the water. Let it stand for 10 minutes, then replace the water. Repeat this process for 45 minutes to one hour until the meat is thoroughly thawed. Then, store the package in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
It doesn’t matter how well you cook your burger, chicken breasts, or pork tenderloin, you’re working against the clock to eat it all or store it within two hours. (The higher the temps, the shorter the window.) Don’t buy into the myth that well-cooked meat doesn’t grow bacteria. It does—and rapidly. In fact, one study found that 80 percent of Escherichia coli (E.coli) outbreaks in the U.S. were the result of improper handling of meat in home kitchens. Keep meat warm by storing it in an aluminum pan in an area of the grill without active flame (if it’s large enough), or cover it with aluminum foil and put it away within two hours to keep everyone safe. Leave them out longer than that? Straight to the trash bin, or else you risk serious tummy trouble.
One of the healthiest and easiest side dishes for your weekend barbecue is a plate of grilled veggies. Corn, eggplant, squash, zucchini—with a bit of oil, salt, pepper, and time on the grill, they’re transformed into succulent, simple sides everyone will want. However, no one wants the E.coli, Listeria, or other bacteria that may grow on them if they’re left sitting at warm temperatures too long. If you leave grilled vegetables sitting out too long, trash them.
More than half of the food sold in the U.S. is grown in developing countries where food-safety standards may not be up to par with what we’d expect. Lettuces, raw vegetables, and other greens are a difficult food to get “clean” no matter your setting, but they can be particularly prone to bacteria growth when sitting in warm temperatures. Mind the two-hour window on salads, and toss them if they’re out for longer than that.
Don’t blame the mayonnaise for this food’s short lifespan. While it’s true mayo can spoil in the heat of a room or outdoor party, the raw vegetables, eggs, and cheese you may add to those pastas and potatoes are the real food safety issues. You can prolong their lives by sitting bowls of these starchy sides in larger bowls of ice and cover them with aluminum foil to keep temps down. Also, prevent waste and potential bacteria issues by dishing out small amounts from the cooler or fridge at a time and refilling frequently. If the window creeps up on two hours, immediately store these dishes in a cooler or fridge, or toss them if they stayed out for longer than that.
Right now, you don’t even have to worry about the effects of temps on fruit; some fruit is coming packaged with its own health hazard. Pre-cut watermelon is responsible for cases of Salmonella in several states. Even outside that cautionary tale, fruit salads host plenty of potential bacterial problems for barbecue-goers. Fruits, like vegetables, carry many foodborne bacteria. Improper washing and storage ups the risks for infection, as does leaving the sweet side salad out for longer than two hours.
Grandma’s beautiful cherry pie is a summer picnic tradition. It’s also a set-up for some serious bacterial growth. Most fruit pies are safe at room temperature (indoors, that is) for several days, but once you take it outside and temperatures creep above 70°F, you’ve got a two-hour window. If the pie isn’t returned to the cool indoors within that timeframe, toss the pie for safety. Grandma will understand.
No family reunion is complete without Aunt Mae’s banana pudding, but the family reunion shouldn’t carry over to the hospital. Don’t set desserts out at the start of the picnic. Instead, wait for everyone to complete their main courses. Then, when they’re sniffing around for something sweet, pull everything from their coolers so they stay refreshingly chilled and safe from bacterial problems. Once everyone is served, put the sweet treats back into their coolers, or toss them if they sit in the heat for longer than two hours.
Foods that are safe all day
Yes, several common picnic and barbecue foods are safe all day, but even they should be stored in cool temps if and when you can.
Mayo aside, most condiments—mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, and relish, for example—are safe at warm temperatures because they’re acidic and have a lower bacterial-growth risk. If they’re in direct sunlight, the flavors may change, so keep them covered, and store them when you’re able.
Summer’s favorite side, grilled corn on the cob, is nothing without its butter bath—and the good news is, your butter won’t go bad, even in the heat. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t melt, so keep butter inside, in the shade, or stored in a cooler until you’re ready to use it—not for safety reasons, but to avoid a melty mess.
Thanks to their high-salt, high-acid environment, most commercially made pickles are A-OK all day at a picnic or cookout. However, it’s still smart to refrigerate them when you can so they don’t get too hot and develop off tastes. Lacto-fermented pickles (the kind that have not been pasteurized) are a different story entirely. They can and will grow bad bacteria in hot temps, so keep them stored until you’re ready to use them, and put them back in coolers or fridges within two hours.
Besides the melting hazard, this quintessential picnic sweet is perfectly safe in summer’s sultry temps. Keep them out of the sun to stop them from turning mushy and melty. If you’re around water or it’s an extra humid day, consider storing them in the cooler to prevent them from becoming soggy.
Have at it. There’s almost nothing high heat and direct sunlight can do to shorten their lifespan, but keep them away from humid or wet environments if you don’t want them to turn into sacks of soggy crisps.