Keep tailgating fun with food safety tips

Q: We love to tailgate before the games, but I’m always concerned about food safety. How do I avoid making food safety mistakes?

A: You definitely do not want food safety mistakes to spoil your tailgating party. Let me share some tips to keep everyone safe.

Washing your hands before and after handling food is critical. Water may not be readily available, but tailgaters can either bring a jug of water, soap and towels, or brush off surface dirt and use pre-packaged towelettes or hand sanitizer.

To avoid cross-contamination, use separate coolers or ice chests for beverages, ready-to-eat foods and raw foods that will be cooked.

On a hot day, the temperature inside a cooler typically rises each time a cooler is opened. Since beverage coolers are usually opened most frequently, separating the beverages helps maintain the quality of other party foods.

It’s also important to fill the cooler or ice chest half-full of ice. Block ice will melt more slowly than cubes, and cubes will melt more slowly than crushed ice.

Freezing water bottles is an option, but do not fill the bottles completely, as the water will expand during the freezing process. One advantage to freezing water in a bottle is that, when thawed, the water is chilled and ready to drink.

Tailgaters are opting for portable gas grills and appliances that plug into car batteries or generators, but it is still critical to test doneness of cooked foods with a food thermometer. Not all ground beef browns at the same time or temperature. That means if a hamburger is brown, it still may not have reached a safe-to-eat temperature of 160 degrees. Bratwurst should also be cooked to 160 degrees. USDA recommendations for cooking all poultry products, such as chicken breasts, thighs or wings, were adjusted earlier this year to 165 degrees. Heat hot dogs to steaming.

If you’re planning to serve an egg casserole before an early game, check to make sure the cooked temperature is 160 degrees. Do not prepare an omelet in a bag (a recipe that’s been shared on the Internet recently). The eggs may not cook completely, and resealable plastic bags, which are not intended for such cooking purposes, may melt.

Here are some additional food safety and time-saving tips:

¢ Always defrost meats in the refrigerator or in the microwave – never at the tailgate. Marinate meat in the refrigerator, and don’t reuse the marinade unless boiled.

¢ Plan the menu with game time in mind. If grilling is on tap for a pregame lunch, plan post-game snacks – fruit, veggies and dip, or a snack mix – that don’t need cooking.

¢ Like baked beans? Bake the beans and other hot dishes right before leaving home; to protect them during travel time, secure the pan or casserole cover and wrap it in thick towels for insulation.

¢ Plan party foods for the number of guests expected to minimize leftovers and food storage before, during and after the game.

¢ Chill salads and sides – deviled eggs, for example – well before transferring them to an ice chest or cooler. And, fill ice chests just before leaving home.

¢ If preparing sandwiches, bring spreads and condiments such as mayonnaise and mustard separately. The same is true for salad dressings.

¢ Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods. If marinating steaks, chops or chicken for grilling at the stadium, do so in a disposable re-sealable plastic bag.

¢ Shade ice chests and coolers; cover with a blanket if no shade is available. Also shade the serving table, if possible.

¢ Planning to pick up a bucket of chicken or pizza on the way to the stadium? Make sure it’s the last stop before the stadium to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

¢ Use a food thermometer to check cooked temperatures.

¢ Wait to remove salads and sides from ice chests and coolers until ready to eat.

¢ Wrap and stow leftovers in the ice chest or cooler or discard them.

¢ For example, if extra hamburgers are cooked, but not eaten, wrap and store them in a cooler for a later meal or snack. If food is left out for two hours or more (one hour or more if the temperature is 90 degrees or above), it should be discarded.

¢ Use disposable paper products, tableware and food containers to minimize cleanup.

¢ Tuck in extra utensils, serving spoons and a roll of paper towels and trash bags. Make a “tailgating kit” with the most used utensils and extra supplies for every game.

¢ Make sure cooking appliances or equipment is shut down and cooling or otherwise stowed appropriately before going to the game to reduce the risk of fire hazards.

¢ Lighten party planning by asking guests to share responsibilities.

¢ For example, ask out-of-towners to bring less perishable items such as chips and salsa or help out on food costs.

¢ Keep it simple. Doing so can minimize food safety risks, keep costs reasonable, and reduce stress for party planners.