Barbecues, picnics and campfire cookouts embrace the relaxed vibe of summer. But a laissez-faire attitude toward food can be dangerous: According to Health Canada, a whopping 11 million Canadians get sick from foodborne illness each year, many of them during the summer. After all, “When you’re outside socializing, maybe you’re a bit more relaxed than you are in the kitchen the rest of the week,” says Brenda Watson, executive director, Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education.
Here are the top five tips to make sure your BBQ sends people home happy:
1. Wash up!
Everything you cook with should be clean — especially your hands. “Wash your hands for 20 seconds in hot soapy water — sing happy birthday to yourself while doing it to time it — while rubbing them quite well,” says Andre Jean, microbiologist with Health Canada. No water nearby? Pack some alcohol-based hand sanitizer — it works just as well. Use a separate cutting board for raw meat, and make sure you keep anything that touches raw meat, like plates and knives, away from other food and cooked meat.
2. Stay out of “the danger zone”
“Bacteria multiplies fastest when it’s in the danger zone, between four degrees Celsius and 60 degrees Celsius,” says Watson. Keep your food on either side of that by cooking meat thoroughly and keeping it cold until it hits the grill.
3. Buy a thermometer for your barbecue
You probably use a thermometer when cooking in your oven, but it’s time to get one for outside, too. “Print out our temperature chart on Be Food Safe, put it in a plastic sleeve, and keep it out near your barbecue,” says Watson, who recommends more-accurate digital thermometers. Be especially careful with burgers — because ground meat has more surface area, it’s riskier. Take your burger off the grill, says Jean, and insert the thermometer sideways, until it’s in the middle, to measure. You’re looking for at least 71 degrees Celsius. And never defrost on the counter — either put meat in the fridge, or defrost in the microwave, and cook it immediately afterwards.
4. Pack your cooler properly
Most of us are good about bringing a cooler, but Jean offers a few smart tips to use it better. “Make sure raw foods are wrapped and placed at the bottom, so if juice comes out, it doesn’t contaminate other foods,” he says. “And bring two coolers with you if possible, one for food and the other for drinks, because you have a tendency to open the drinks one more often then the food one.” Finally, don’t store it in the sun, and pack it full of ice.
5. Wash your veggies
Before you head out, wash your veggies thoroughly. “For carrots or potatoes, use a vegetable brush, and scrub them under running tap water, to get into those crevices. For more perishable, more tender-skinned fruits and veggies like strawberries, or lettuce, you put them in a colander and put the colander under tap water, and gently with your fingers, rinse them off,” says Watson.