Picnics and barbecues are a great way to celebrate summer holidays or just spend time with friends and family. But the celebration can be marred if precautions to keep the food safe aren't taken.

The Department of Agriculture says prevention starts before and during a picnic. Keep these food safety tips in mind for your next outdoor get-together to help prevent food-borne illness:

• At the store, keep meats separate from other items in your shopping cart and grocery bags to avoid cross-contamination.

• Thaw meat completely in the refrigerator so it grills more evenly.

• Marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter.

• Keep cold food cold until serving; keep ready-to-serve food in a cooler packed with plenty of ice or freezer packs to minimize bacterial growth. Pack beverages in a separate cooler. Because it's opened more often, the temperature inside will increase. Use another cooler for uncooked meat.

• Keep hot food hot until ready to use; you have a two-hour window to eat your food. Use insulated containers, propane slow cookers or keep foods on the part of the grill that keeps them warm without charring.

• Wash tables or use tablecloths.

• Identify easy access to a water facility.

• Food handlers should wash hands and forearms.

• Guests can clean their hands with soap and water, hand sanitizer or wipes. This is especially important when serving finger food.

"Set the hand sanitizer in front of the food line or have a hand-washing station that has a basin to capture the running water," says Marilee Poulson, epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health. "The basin avoids making a mud puddle that attracts mosquitoes."

Depending on the venue, dispose of the soapy water appropriately.

• Wash melons before cutting them to minimize pushing bacteria from the rind into the flesh of the melon.

• Don't cut vegetables or other ready-to-eat food on the same cutting board as chicken or meat. Bring two separate cutting boards — one for meat, chicken and fish; the other will be for fruits, vegetables and other foods.

• Serve small portions of pasta salad and potato salad rather than putting out the whole container. Use a clean serving spoon instead of the one that has been sitting on the table. Put the potato salad on an ice bath.

• Monitor food temperature with a food thermometer. Food should not sit out for more than an hour in hot weather. Discard food left out more than two hours, one hour if temperatures are above 90 degrees. This includes cut fruits.

• Keep food items covered.

• When serving dips, keep smaller amounts out and restock frequently.

For a comprehensive list of things to do to prevent food-borne illness, go to www.foodsafety.gov.

Jennifer Francis

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