Dining Alfresco

Picnics are a great way to share food and fun this summer
By Cara Lucas

There really is no better way to enjoy a nice summer day than outside eating food, right? Be it a full-blown barbeque or a quick amuse-bouche, it’s revitalizing and fun to get away from the routine of indoor meals at the kitchen table.

Dining alfresco, or out in the open air, has a long history. In fact, it traces all the way back to the French Revolution when freshly enfranchised citizens picnicked in royal parks made accessible to the general public. Early in the 19th century, a group of Londoners formed the “Picnic Society” where each member brought a food item or refreshment to share with others in the group—a potluck, if you will.

To this day, picnics are a great way to celebrate friendship, family, and food. They bring you back to the innocence of youth as you reconnect to the outdoors in a childlike way. Yet, picnics don’t have to be all PB&J and Cracker Jacks: there are a number of staple meals and sides that can be amped up a bit to create interesting and delicious dishes for anyone. Be it vegetarian dishes, desserts, unique salads, raw food, or snacks that include some lean turkey or chicken, a modern barbeque has something for everyone.

Since today’s picnics feature new types of food, it’s important to reiterate food safety as you prepare and plan out your menu or dish to contribute. In fact, food-borne illness (or food poisoning) peaks in summertime, and the warm weather has a lot to do with it. First, the heat encourages rapid bacterial growth—most harmful bacteria thrive at temperatures above 90 degrees and below 110. For ambient temperatures below 80 degrees, leave food out for no more than two hours. Above 80 degrees, cut this time in half. Above 90 degrees—limit exposure to 30 minutes.

Secondly, bacteria need moisture to survive and, in most areas in the United States, summer is the most humid and damp season of the year.

Here are some tips to consider when picnicking this summer:

>>Wash your hands thoroughly: Flowing tap water may not always be available at picnic sites, so consider bringing a gallon or two of water and ecologically friendly hand soap from home. You could also use hand sanitizer or wet wipes.

>>Use a food thermometer to ensure meat is cooked thoroughly: Place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, but be careful not to touch any bones, as they may be hotter than the meat. Remember to wash the thermometer with hot soapy water before and after every use.

>>Avoid cross-contamination between foods, especially uncooked meats: The most common form of cross-contamination occurs when cooked meat is placed on a plate or platter that previously held raw meat. This defeats the purpose of cooking as it allows bacteria present on the raw meat to come back into contact with the cooked meat.

>>Transport raw meat to the picnic site in a separate container: When packing for a picnic, consider bringing two coolers, one for raw meat and food that will be accessed only at mealtime, and another for beverages and any other food that may need to be accessed frequently. Wrap raw meat in secure bags or containers to prevent juices from coming into contact with other food in the cooler.

>>Keep food covered at the picnic site: It’s important to keep food covered and away from insects such as flies, which can carry harmful bacteria onto food. A simple clean cloth or paper towel should do the trick.


Grass-Fed, Organic, and Free-Range: The Truth Behind the Terms

For those of you choosing to throw some meat on the grill, it’s important to start with high quality fare. As Michael Pollan famously wrote, “You are what what you eat eats.” To ensure what you are buying is good quality, good for you, and humanely raised, here’s a look at the relevant terms—and what they actually mean.

Grass-Fed: Cattle eat grasses in a biodiverse environment. There is typically much more freedom to roam. No antibiotics needed (and therefore none in the meat), better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, higher in vitamins B, E, and K, beta-carotene, magnesium, calcium, selenium, CLA.

Organic: 100 percent of feed must be certified organic. Farmers must provide conditions that “allow for exercise, freedom of movement, and reduction of stress appropriate to the species.” Disease is avoided by “providing appropriate housing, pasture conditions, and sanitation practices.” No antibiotics may be used.

Free-Range: USDA regulation of the term applies only to poultry (chicken, turkey, and eggs) and specifies that “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” USDA regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the open-air.

The upshot? While these labels and their enforcement aren’t perfect, they are certainly a step in the right direction. The trend is certainly moving toward more sustainable and transparent methods of animal husbandry: from 1998 – 2009 the number of producers of grass-fed beef went from 100 to over 2,000 and the market went from $2 million to $380 million—over $1 billion if you include imported grass-fed beef. Consumers are voting with their pocketbooks.


Search the "Recipes" tab to find some of our favorite summer picnic foods!