To prevent bacteria from growing on food while outdoors, keep hot food at temperatures above 140 degrees and cold food at temperatures below 40 degrees. If temperatures remain in the range between, bacteria can multiply rapidly and reach dangerous levels within two hours. To avoid the food-borne illnesses that can come because of this bacteria growth, follow these additional steps and keep your food safe to eat.

Hot foods

Because it is difficult to keep food hot without a heat source, try to cook foods beforehand, and then allow them time to cool and place them in the cooler.

Eat hot take-out foods, such as fried chicken or barbequed beef, within two hours of purchase or buy ahead of time and chill before packing the food into the cooler. This will eliminate the possibility of the food getting contaminated by bacteria when it cools.

If heating food, be sure temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Meats must be cooked in heats of 165 to 180 degrees, depending on the type of meat, to make sure they are safe to eat.

Bring your thermometer to ensure that meats are cooked thoroughly.

Do not partially cook meat ahead of time. This allows bacteria the chance to multiply before you have the chance to finish cooking the meat.

Cold foods

Keep cold food at 40 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent spoiling.

Bring frozen gel packs or freeze other bottles of water to place in the cooler. If you're planning to be outside for a long period of time, remember that a large block of ice will last longer than ice cubes.

Pack food into the cooler in the reverse order, so the foods you need to use last are at the bottom. This will keep those foods cold until you are ready to use them.

Discard all perishable food into a trash bin when the cold source in the cooler melts. Don't take the risk of eating food that could be spoiled.

In warm weather, put the cooler inside the air-conditioned part of the car as you drive to your location to prevent your cold source in the cooler from melting in the sun.

When possible, keep the cooler closed, out of the sun and covered so the food inside will have better insulation. Avoid opening and closing the cooler so that the ice will not melt.

Food should be kept inside the cooler at all times except for when being served. Any food left outside for longer than an hour should be thrown away out of safety concerns.

What to keep in the cooler

sandwich meats

cooked chicken

potato salad

opened canned foods

dairy products

What foods don't need to be refrigerated

fruits

vegetables

nuts

trail mix

canned meat spreads

peanut butter and jelly

Keep everything clean

Bring disposable wipes or antibacterial soap to wash your hands before and after you eat.

Make sure all utensils are clean.

If cooking raw meats, make sure to wrap raw meats tightly so that juices will not come in contact with any of the other food while in the cooler.

Wash all cutting boards or plates that held the raw meat before putting any other food back on them.

Source: The United States Department of Agriculture Web site at usda.gov

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B2.

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