A picnic basket holds bananas, apples, and other fruit. A pie, salad, and bowl of strawberries are placed on a picnic blanket.
Proper food preparation and smart organization can help you avoid cross-contamination and spoilage. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

The end of the school year is fast approaching. The warm-weather days are finally here. You’ve penciled in your must-see, must-do events for the summer.

Boating. Amusement parks. Local festivals. Pretty much anything that gives you an excuse to soak up the sunshine.

But few things rival the all-time summer classic: picnics and potlucks.

And while those grand gatherings of food and friends may seem like they’re free of worry and strife, they’re actually a golden opportunity to contract foodborne illness—particularly if you don’t pay attention to food preparation and handling.

How many people really stop to think about the safety of the food that has been sitting in the sun all day? Foodborne illnesses happen more often than you’d expect.

You can smarten up your food safety by following these sensible tips on preparation, handling and storage.

Keep it cold

Place cold items into a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs. The temperature should remain below 40 degrees. Frozen meats should also be placed into a cooler to ensure they stay cold longer.

Once the cold food is served, it should not be left out for more than two hours. If the outdoor temperature exceeds 90 degrees, this time frame drops to one hour. If your cold food has been out longer than this, you need to throw it away. To help cool food when it’s out, you can place dishes such as chicken salad or potato salad directly onto a bowl of ice.

Rule the cooler

Your cooler should be in tip-top order, with everything organized according to accessibility, use and safety. This avoids spillage, contamination and overexposure to the warm temperature.

If you place an in-demand food item at the bottom of the cooler, for example, you will repeatedly expose other top-level, lesser-used items to the outdoor temperature. This is unwise.

For starters, consider placing beverages into a separate cooler, so your food cooler doesn’t need to be opened as frequently. This will keep the temperature down on your cold foods. And place your lesser-used items toward the bottom of the cooler.

The trick is to limit the number of times the coolers are opened, so you keep your food cold as long as possible.

Avoid cross-contamination

Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood securely wrapped to prevent any juices from contaminating prepared dishes and raw foods. Consider using a separate meat cooler, in fact, or placing raw meat below the prepared dishes.

Prep your produce

When you’re packing things up at home, take time to rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water. Scrub any firm-skinned produce with a vegetable brush, and make sure you cut and prep all your servings so that you’re not messing with it at the picnic.

Grill it right

If you want to use a marinade, do it while the meat is in the refrigerator at home. Don’t re-use the marinade after the meat is cooked!

Also, if you are partially cooking the meat before grilling, do so immediately before leaving the house. Meat should be cooked thoroughly and kept hot until served.

Hot foods should be kept above 140 degrees when holding for serving and they should not be left out for more than two hours.

Avoid re-using platters or utensils that were used with raw meats.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers a handy chart that details safe cooking temperatures. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers seven tips for safe picnics, including this time-tested truth: “When in doubt, throw it out.”