05/28/2012 12:36 EDT | Updated 07/28/2012 05:12 EDT

When packing portable feast ensure picnic food is safe by keeping it cold

LONDON, Ont. - Anyone who has ever tried to snag a good picnic table at a popular park on a Sunday afternoon doesn't need to be told Canadians love to eat outdoors.

Whether it's on a blanket at the beach, in the bleachers at your kids' soccer tournament or on your own backyard patio, there's something special about eating al fresco.

"I think everything tastes a little better," says Carol Jensson of Vancouver, co-author with Judie Glick of "The New Granville Island Market Cookbook." "It's just the idea of being outside, sitting on the grass and watching the sailboats go by or just sitting in a beautiful park and enjoying it."

The "ambience," fresh air and friends and family are even more important than the food, she says. "It can be a sandwich you bought at the gas station."

Amy Snider-Whitson, a professional home economist and president of The Test Kitchen Inc., a Maple, Ont., firm that specializes in recipe development, research and food-trend tracking, agrees a picnic "can be really anything."

That's not to say both women wouldn't prefer something other than a gas station sandwich. Both are big fans of salads.

One of Jensson's favourites is a beet and goat cheese pasta salad with a vinaigrette dressing. It travels well and is particularly good for potluck-type picnics.

"Likely nobody else is going to bring that."

Snider-Whitson also prefers "substantial" salads that can act as the main course. One developed at The Test Kitchen for a corporate client is a pad Thai salad, with vermicelli noodles, chicken, bean sprouts and lots of vegetables.

She also recommends "combinations that include grains and legumes, marinated vegetables, things that are a little hardier and are less likely to deteriorate if packed in a cooler. You're better to stay away from leafy greens because they wilt."

One idea for keeping foods fresh is to fold a moist paper towel on top of them before sealing the container.

Sandwiches are always a popular choice for picnics, but if making them at home avoid ingredients or condiments that will make the bread soggy long before you're ready to eat. For build-your-own sandwiches, Snider-Whitson advises cutting the bread or buns and other ingredients, such as tomatoes, onions, meats and cheeses, at home.

"The less stuff you have to do on site, the easier it is to enjoy."

As an alternative to a plates-and-cutlery type of meal, she suggests "more grazeable items," bite-sized snacks that can be assembled at home, don't take as much room to store if you're hiking to a picnic site, for example, and don't require anything but your fingers to eat.

Choices could include things like a vegetable roll made with rice paper and served with a dipping sauce or tortilla wraps with cream cheese, veggies and salsa cut into pinwheels. Add some trail mix and whole fresh fruit and you're good to go.

But there is one essential that applies to all picnickers, regardless of what they're serving — KEEP IT COLD!

This means using insulated coolers or bags and lots of ice or ice packs to transport the food, says Dave Pavletic, food safety manager in environmental health for the Middlesex London Health Unit. Even the standards such as cooked chicken and potato salad are fine to take to a picnic as long as they're kept cold, he says.

"We want to make sure the temperature of those food items is not elevated above 4 C, that they're kept really cold for as long as we can."

Food can become unsafe after only two hours in temperatures warmer than 4 C (40 F), says the Ontario Ministry of Health, which also says food should not be left out for more than one hour.

Raw meats should be avoided entirely, Pavletic says, but cooked meat is OK as long as it was cooked to the proper temperature originally and is kept cold until it's eaten. All salads and dressings should be kept cold whether they're dressed at home or on site; likewise anything containing at-risk foods such as dairy products, cold cuts or cheeses.

Keeping food separated and in sealed containers is important, he says.

It's also a good idea to put the most at-risk foods in the bottom of the cooler where they will benefit most from the ice or ice packs and so they're the last to be removed before eating. From a practical point of view, it also makes sense to have the items you'll need first, such as the tablecloth, plates and utensils, at the top of the cooler or picnic basket.

Pavletic also advises taking a bottle of hand sanitizer. "It's not as effective as diligent washing with soap and hot water, but it's a good alternative."

And don't forget to take extra water and trash bags for cleanup.


To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)

Note to readers: This is a corrected version. An earlier story misspelled the surname of Carol Jensson, co-author of "The New Granville Island Market Cookbook."