Summertime can be one of the best times of the year. We enjoy long summer days with friends and family in the great outdoors. Good food is often an important part of our gatherings. Hopefully, the ants and bees will not join your celebration. An even bigger concern than our pesky friends is the potential for foodborne illnesses. As the temperatures rise, so should our diligence when it comes to serving and storing foods and leftovers. After all, food poisoning is no picnic!
As people age, their bodies are less able to combat bacteria. Older adults become more at-risk for illnesses and once ill, it can take them longer to recover. Medications can also cause a diminished sense of taste and smell, which can increase the likelihood of ingesting harmful foods.
Bacteria grow rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees (the danger zone). Therefore, it is important to keep your hot foods >140 degrees and your cold foods <40 degrees. When serving foods buffet style, keep your cold foods in an ice bath or serve foods in small serving trays and replace them often. Hot foods should be kept in chafing dishes, slow cookers, or warming trays. When selecting your side dishes, the less creamy foods are desirable in warm temperature. Choose baked potatoes or potato chips instead of creamy potato salads. Cookies and brownies are safer than perishable cream or fruit-filled pies.
After the picnic, discard any foods that have been sitting out longer than 2 hours (1 hour recommended above temperatures of 90 degrees). We all hate to waste food, but a bout of food poisoning is a much worse alternative. Cover leftovers, wrap them in airtight packaging, or seal in storage containers. To prevent bacterial growth, it’s important to cool food rapidly so it reaches the safe refrigerator storage temperature of 40 degrees or less as quickly as possible. Dividing larger trays of leftovers into smaller, shallow containers decreases the time it will take to get into the safe temperature zone.
Once you are home, don’t forget your leftovers in the backseat of the car as some of my family members have done! Refrigerate or freeze them immediately. Leftovers from parties, picnics, or restaurants should not be kept for longer than 3 to 4 days. Labeling your leftovers with the date is helpful to keep you from losing track of time. The recommended time for frozen foods is 3 to 4 months. Although safe indefinitely, frozen leftovers can lose moisture and flavor when stored for longer times in the freezer.
When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach 165 degrees as measured with a food thermometer. Sauces and soups are best reheated by bringing them to a rolling boil. Covering the leftovers during reheating helps retain moisture and ensures that food will heat all the way through. Microwaving is another safe method for reheating. Cover your foods to retain the moisture. The moist heat will help destroy harmful bacteria and will ensure uniform cooking. Allow a resting time before checking the internal temperature of the food as meats tend to continue cooking for a longer time.
If you would like more information on food safety, check online at www.fsis.usda.gov. For more information on healthy eating as you age, see our informative guide "Feed Your Body Right: Nutritional Needs After 50."
About Sue Campbell, RD, LD: Sue is the Community Nutritionist at Kendal at Oberlin in Oberlin, Ohio. She studied at Ohio University and graduated with a degree in Dietetics in 1992. She has been working with older adults for the past 15 years and particularly enjoys wellness topics, cooking and writing.