Food for thought: 4 ways to avoid getting sick at a picnic

This is a post by Dr. Gigi Chawla, a pediatrician/hospitalist and the director of Medical and Surgical Services at our hospital in St. Paul. Dr. Chawla specializes in treating children with special needs.

Picnics, celebrations and holiday potlucks are some of the joys of summer – and, unfortunately, the source of infectious woes.

Consider your summer gatherings where food is a central component in a similar context to eating in a third-world country. Though the tastes may be spectacular, the hygiene issues around preparation may lack. This can lead to serious exposures and illnesses including E.coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, Hepatitis A, Norwalk virus, and a variety of viruses which may produce an upper respiratory tract illness or “cold.” That’s a mouthful!

The standard practices when traveling to a third-world country include using good hand hygiene and selecting foods that come whole, that can be peeled, and that are cooked or boiled before eaten.

The same practices apply to your summer gathering. They’re simple to follow but can be easily forgotten. Here are some reminders:

  1. Wash your hands: Keep your hands clean with soap and water or hand sanitizer while serving yourself at a picnic or eating food with your hands.
  2. Pick smart foods: Select foods that come whole and wash them well, foods that can be peeled, and foods that are cooked or boiled before eating. Well-cooked foods pose a lower risk than uncooked or undercooked foods. Although a pasta or garden salad may look appealing, thoroughly cooked lasagna may be the safer option.
  3. Keep food at a constant cold temperature: The temperature of foods that are placed on ice or in cool water to stay chilled, such as pasta or potato salads, can fluctuate. Ice melts. Cool water becomes tepid. This can lead to bacteria overgrowth.
  4. Bring multiple utensils: Avoid using the same utensil for handling raw meats, opening packages and cutting up fruit.

Have fun at your summertime food gatherings! Just think twice about the foods you place on your paper plate.

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