Summertime…my favorite season! I’m sure many Veterans enjoy the summertime fun with family cook-outs, and the VA nutrition team is here to help you do it safely! Some things just seem to go together, like beach music and classic convertibles, like crashing waves and sand in your shorts, like summertime and food.  Any food, really, but especially food that can be doused in savory sauces and grilled to smoky goodness, or put in a basket and carried to the park. Grillin’ food…picnic food.

My favorite memories of summer picnics are when we visited my grandparents at their little lake in Michigan. There was an outhouse, a sleeping shelter, a Weber grill and a dock.  We kids would swim and fish off the dock during every moment of sunlight, only running up to the grill to grab hunks of whatever meat my grandpa was burning that day. He was a butcher so all the meat was oddly shaped, mysterious and always delicious. Assorted aunts and cousins showed up with baked beans, potato salad, pasta salad, deviled eggs and watermelon.  The cold things got hot pretty fast, and you had to eat the beans in the first hour or they got gummy with cooled grease and sugar over the top.  Everything sat out all day, and anyone who walked by the picnic table was scolded to “shoo off them flies since you’re there.”

Honestly, I’m amazed we survived.

Fast forward 30 years:  I still enjoy cook-outs and picnics at the lake (in eastern North Carolina instead of Michigan), but gone are the days of sun-warm potato salads and fly-strewn watermelon. I now know the risks of food-borne illness, and how to prevent them—and you need to know about the risks too!

According to the National Institute of Health, food-borne illnesses are caused by eating food or drinking beverages contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or viruses. Food-borne illnesses can cause symptoms that range from an upset stomach to more serious symptoms, including diarrhea, fever, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and dehydration. Most food-borne infections are undiagnosed and unreported, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year about 76 million people in the United States become ill from disease-causing substances in food.

As I researched the information I wanted to share, I realized that my guarantee of accuracy and completeness is to go to straight to the source: the US Department of Agriculture. Following these guidelines for safe, happy and fun summer eating!

The following information is compiled from:  www.foodsafety.gov

Here are some general rules for keeping food safe during summer recreation:

Plan Ahead…
If you are traveling with perishable food, place it in a cooler with ice or freezer packs. When carrying drinks, consider packing them in a separate cooler so the food cooler is not opened frequently. Have plenty of ice or frozen gel-packs on hand before starting to pack food. If you take perishable foods along (for example, meat, poultry, eggs, and salads) for eating on the road or to cook at your vacation spot, plan to keep everything on ice in your cooler.

Pack Safely…
Pack perishable foods directly from the refrigerator or freezer into the cooler. Meat and poultry may be packed while it is still frozen; in that way it stays colder longer. Also, a full cooler will maintain its cold temperatures longer than one that is partially filled. Be sure to keep raw meat and poultry wrapped separately from cooked foods, or foods meant to be eaten raw such as fruits.

If the cooler is only partially filled, pack the remaining space with more ice. For long trips to the shore or the mountains, take along two coolers — one for the day’s immediate food needs, such as lunch, drinks or snacks, and the other for perishable foods to be used later in the vacation. Limit the times the cooler is opened. Open and close the lid quickly.

Marinating
A marinade is a savory, acidic sauce in which a food is soaked to enrich its flavor or to tenderize it. Marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Poultry and cubed meat or stew meat can be marinated up to 2 days. Beef, veal, pork, and lamb roasts, chops, and steaks may be marinated up to 5 days. If some of the marinade is to be used as a sauce on the cooked food, reserve a portion of the marinade before putting raw meat and poultry in it. However, if the marinade used on raw meat or poultry is to be reused, make sure to let it come to a boil first to destroy any harmful bacteria.

Transporting
When carrying food to another location, keep it cold to minimize bacterial growth. Use an insulated cooler with sufficient ice or ice packs to keep the food at 40 °F or below. Pack food right from the refrigerator into the cooler immediately before leaving home.

Cooking Temperatures: Meat
Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.

Ground Meats
Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160 °F as measured with a food thermometer.

Poultry
Cook all poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.

Pit Roasting
Pit roasting is cooking meat in a large, level hole dug in the earth. A hardwood fire is built in the pit, requiring wood equal to about 2½ times the volume of the pit. The hardwood is allowed to burn until the wood reduces and the pit is half filled with burning coals. This can require 4 to 6 hours burning time.

Cooking may require 10 to 12 hours or more and is difficult to estimate. A food thermometer must be used to determine the meat’s safety and doneness. There are many variables such as outdoor temperature, the size and thickness of the meat, and how fast the coals are cooking.

Hope these tips help and enjoy your summer!

Sarah Lacoma is based at the VAMC in Fayetteville, NC where she provides in-patient nutrition care. Both her parents are former military so she has a special love for her vets and considers this her favorite job ever. Her nutrition career began in 1998 and has included women’s health, lactation and dialysis. She has been at the VA for one year and hopes to be there for many more.

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