Food safety on the go

Mikala Atkinson, Nutritionist

Whether it’s a picnic in the park, a day at the zoo or a forest hike, packing food to take makes it easier to recharge with healthy meals and snacks, saves you money and gives you the freedom to explore further from home.

To ensure perishable food stays safe to eat and goes the distance, it’s essential that you scrub up on your food safe practices – especially with the return of warmer weather.

What does perishable food mean?

Perishable food means food that requires refrigeration, such as milk, meat, poultry and eggs. These foods must be kept cold to ensure they remain food safe. Harmful bacteria can multiply very quickly once food that should be cold is no longer cold, potentially leading to upset tummies, food poisoning or simply food wastage because spoiled food must be thrown away. Other foods can become perishable once cooked, such as rice or pasta, or once processed such as chopped vegetables and fruits.

What does food safety involve?

Food safety begins when you purchase your groceries from the supermarket and head home with a full boot! Make sure you unpack and place the perishables in the fridge as quickly as possible once home. Perishable food should not be left out at room temperature (from 5 to 32 °C) for more than 2 hours — 1 hour if the temperature is very high (above 32 °C).

Food safety not only means being sure to pack, store and transport food correctly so that it stays at the right temperature, it also means cooking and prepping correctly at home before you set off.

Preparing and packing safely

Before preparing food for heading out, give your hands a soapy wash to make sure they are clean and free of germs. Use clean chopping boards, containers, and utensils, and wipe down your countertops with some hot, soapy water after preparing each food item. Harmful bacteria can spread across surfaces and utensils so it is important to keep some separation. Consider using one chopping board for fresh produce and a separate board for meat and poultry. Remember to let chopping boards dry completely every day.

What about preparing food the night before?

It's fine to prepare food the night before, just make sure you store everything in the fridge until you are ready to head out. If this involves cooking food ahead of time, make sure you cool the cooked food quickly** and put it into the fridge as soon as it has cooled. Pack the pre-prepared food into your fridge bags, lunch bags or an esky right before leaving the house to reduce time spent outside of the fridge.  

** Cool food in smaller portions as this will help it cool faster.

Keeping cold food cold

Insulated lunch boxes or bags are great for keeping food cold when on the move. Remember to pack solid ice blocks that have been frozen overnight and are designed to keep food cold. Thicker fridge blocks are recommended as they take longer to defrost.

Freezing sandwiches helps them stay cold for longer but remember not to freeze them with lettuce or tomatoes as these ingredients don’t thaw well and are better added fresh. Another trick is freezing water bottles or yoghurt tubs as they will further help keep everything cool while they are thawing.

Keeping hot food hot

In the same way it is important to keep cold food cold before serving, any food you wish to serve hot needs to remain hot when being packed to go. Use an insulated container like a thermos to keep food like soup, pasta or curry hot. Fill the container with boiling water, leave to stand for a few minutes, empty, and then fill with the piping hot food. Keep the insulated container closed until serving to maintain the temperature and at the end of the day throw away any leftovers that did not get eaten. Don’t forget to test your thermos at home first to make sure kids are comfortable handling hot foods and aren’t inclined to burn themselves.

Pack plenty but not too much

Don’t over-pack! Aim to take just the right amount of perishable food that can be eaten on your outing, that way you won’t need to carry extra containers or waste any food. After you have eaten it is important that you discard all leftovers that may not be cold anymore. It is also important that you throw away food packaging or paper bags the perishable food came in. Do not reuse this packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause illness.

Stock up on non-perishables

When it comes to foods that have a long shelf life and can withstand temperature extremes, these are what are known as shelf-stable or non-perishable items and are great staples to stock up on. This includes foods such as nuts, tinned items like baked beans and tuna, muesli bars, spreads like peanut butter or vegemite, and crackers. Non-perishable foods are ideal for activities such as hiking where you may have limited cool space, don’t want to carry heavy fridge blocks or even when you are camping and may be away from refrigeration for an extended period of time.

Wherever you are heading, have fun and remember to keep it safe by following these hints and tips.