Q: When I go on road trips or day trips with my family in the summer, I’m always worried about the food I bring. It gets so hot, so quickly in the car. By the time it’s time to eat that chicken salad sandwich, it’s positively smoking! And forget yogurt — I might as well stick it in the microwave! Got any tips on how to make sure the food I’m giving my family is safe to eat? Or tips to know when it’s not? What about on a simple trip to the park with my kids on a summer afternoon? Do I have to be worried about the food I bring then, too?

A: Excellent question. Food-borne illness is much more prevalent in the summer than in any other season because of the heat, so it’s important to make sure you follow some important food safety tips.

First, if you’re out running errands and food shopping is on your to-do list, try to make the grocery store your last stop. It may seem intuitive, but it’s key to keeping your food bacteria-free in the first place. The quicker your food gets from the store to your refrigerator, the less time it has to grow bacteria. In the winter, you can go to the store first thing in the morning and leave your groceries in the car all day till your hubby gets home to unload the trunk of your car. That’s because in the winter, your car acts like a refrigerator (or a freezer in some places). In the summer? Not so much.

Once that food is in your fridge, keep it there for as long as you can. Don’t put it in the cooler until you’re just about to leave on your road trip, and make sure the cooler is well-stocked with ice packs and ice. Also, just like your fridge, a full cooler will keep things colder than a half-empty cooler. If you can, pack the drinks separately since the drink cooler is usually opened a lot more often than the food cooler.

Also, if you are packing raw meat (if you’re having a BBQ on the beach for instance), make sure it’s wrapped really well, so that juices from the meat don’t leak onto any ready-to-eat food. Raw meat can contain harmful bacteria.

If you’re going to be in a situation where a cooler along isn’t practical (like an all-day hike), freeze some water bottles, wrap them in a towel and put it your backpack with your lunch. Not only will you keep your food cold while you’re outside, you’ll get in some extra cardio, and you’ll have refreshing water to drink when you get to the top of that mountain.

For the playground or short trips, try bringing along food that doesn’t require refrigeration, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (though if you’re going to the playground, it’s probably a better idea to avoid peanut butter altogether, since many kids are allergic), dried fruit or crackers. Save the refrigerated stuff for when you get home. If you have to bring it with you, use a small cooler bag like this one that you can stuff in your diaper bag (for those cheese sticks and yogurt).

Food left out for more than two hours should be discarded (like that steamy chicken salad sandwich you mentioned — no offense, but blech). When it’s 90 degrees or hotter, the same goes for perishable food left out for more than one hour. And remember, when in doubt, throw it out — or add it to your compost heap). You know what they say: Better safe than hurling yesterday’s egg salad in the middle of the night. (Take it from me, I learned the hard way.)

Happy trails to you! 

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