Yahoo Life Shopping
Why you can trust us

We independently evaluate the products we review. When you buy via links on our site, we may receive compensation. Read more about how we vet products and deals.

How long can your pasta salad stay out? Here's what food safety experts say

From serving to storing summer faves, you'll want to keep these pro tips in mind for your next cookout to avoid potential illness.

If chowing down on picnic food isn't the best part of summer, I don't know what is. And as delicious as a cold, juicy slice of watermelon or a perfectly snappy hot dog is, eating your favorite warm-weather fare is even more enjoyable when it's not accompanied by a side of food poisoning. Not to be a Debbie Downer, but leaving your famous pasta salad out of the fridge — especially on a hot day — is a prime way for illness-causing bacteria to enter the mix. And they were certainly not invited to the party ... Just how long can barbecue, sides and desserts stay on the buffet table? As a former professional baker, I have a food handler's license, but I wanted to get the most up-to-date skinny about preparing, serving and storing food in the most sanitary way. So, I spoke to two food safety experts: Here are their tips to remember for your next summer bash.

Overhead shot of a picnic table filled with summer foods, and hands serving the food
Of course you want your cookout to be fun, but food safety is the most important element of any feast. (Getty Images)

Ever been to a barbecue where the mayo-packed potato salad was left outside all day? Yeah, you'll want to avoid that. The window in which it's safe to leave food out at room temperature is likely shorter than you'd think, thanks to something called the (dun-dun-dun): Danger Zone.

According to the USDA, the Danger Zone refers to food temperatures "between 40°F (4.4°C) and 140°F (60°C)." Why? "There are certain foods that can cause foodborne illness if allowed to sit in the temperature Danger Zone, because potentially harmful bacteria can grow at these temperatures," says Dr. Ellen Shumaker, Director of Outreach for the Safe Plates program at NC State University. "These include cut leafy greens, cut tomatoes and cut melon, raw and cooked meat and poultry, milk and dairy products, cooked dishes like casseroles, cooked vegetables, beans, pasta, rice and potatoes, as well as baked goods with cream, custard, cheese, meat/vegetable fillings and cream frostings."

If you're thinking, "That's, like, so many foods!" you're right. But you can still safely enjoy them as long as you adhere to certain guidelines. Typically, that means keeping food out for no more than two hours, says Dr. Amanda Deering, Associate Professor of Fresh Produce Food Safety at Purdue University's Department of Food Science. That said, she adds, "If temperatures are above 90°F, it should sit out for no more than an hour." And if recent heatwaves are any indication of what the rest of summer holds, the one-hour rule just might become the norm rather than the exception.

Want to really ensure your food doesn't stay out too long? This is one of those inventions that'll make you go, "Now why didn't I think of that?!" Well, we're glad the folks over at Taylor did, because this timer is a total game-changer. Not only will it let you keep track of how long four different dishes have been sitting out, you'll be able to label them too. 

"I just love this timer!" exclaimed a fan. "The attached whiteboard is extremely useful; I used to attach sticky notes to whatever number of timers I needed, but this saves room to have four on one, and saves money on sticky notes!"

$17 at Amazon
Explore more purchase options
$18 at Ace Hardware

When it comes to safely preparing food, some ingredients are less straightforward than others. Of course, you'll always want to make sure you're using freshly cleaned hands and tools no matter what you're making, but for things like meat, there are other factors to keep in mind.

"A meat thermometer is going to be your best friend," says Dr. Deering. "That's the only true way you can tell you cooked it properly." Dr. Shumaker agrees, adding, "With outdoor cookouts and grilling, I always think about making sure that meats are cooked to a safe endpoint temperature to kill off harmful bacteria. Burgers and other ground meat should be cooked to 160°F and poultry should be cooked to 165°F." Grilling steak? The USDA says to cook beef, pork, veal and lamb steaks to an internal temperature of 145°F and let rest for at least three minutes. The same temperature applies to fish and shellfish.

"Other safety tips to keep in mind are to make sure that people handling and serving food are washing their hands and avoiding cross-contamination (making sure that utensils or cutting boards aren't used with raw meat and then fresh salad)," heeds Dr. Shumaker. You ... are washing your hands ... right?

Make undercooked (and overcooked, for that matter) steak a thing of the past, thanks to this gizmo that presents a reading in seconds. Oh, and while this top-seller might technically be called a "meat" thermometer, don't underestimate its value when it comes to liquids and baked goods — I use mine every time I make a cake. 

"I can't believe I've gone so long without a good cooking thermometer," wrote an impressed cook. "This thing works great, seems accurate. I like the magnet, so I can keep it on my fridge for easy finding. I used it to make yogurt — takes all the guessing out of that process."

$10 at Amazon

It probably makes sense that keeping meat out at room temperature for too long isn't a great idea, but what about all of those accoutrements? "People sometimes don't think about fresh fruits and vegetables," says Dr. Deering, who advises heeding the Danger Zone guidelines for cut produce as well. To keep your produce fresh for longer, she says you'll want to "wash it under cool, running water and scrub with a vegetable brush, right before you're going to consume it." Rinsing it off too early can encourage the growth of bacteria, so it's best to hold off until you're about to cut it up.

As for starchy side dishes? If you're on social media, you may have come across videos about something referred to as "Fried Rice Syndrome." Funny name, yes, but it's no laughing matter. "Fried rice syndrome refers to foodborne illness caused by, as the name implies, consuming fried rice," explains Dr. Shumaker. "In this case, it is caused by the bacteria Bacillus cereus. Bacillus cereus can be found anywhere. It is usually found in spore form, which is a dormant, or inactive, form of the bacteria. When the right conditions occur, the spore form of a bacteria can become active. When some foods, like rice and other cooked dishes, are left sitting out for too long, Bacillus cereus can become active and produce a toxin. That toxin is what causes foodborne illness — specifically diarrhea, nausea and vomiting." I don't think that's how any of us envision our summer....

How to avoid getting sick? You got it — keep foods like rice, pasta, potato salad, casseroles and even condiments from sitting in the Danger Zone for too long. (At this point, shouldn't someone get Kenny Loggins to rework his Top Gun theme song to increase awareness around food safety?)

Oh, and if you're thinking, "I'll just pop this cheesy dip I forgot to put in the fridge back into the oven to cook off that bacteria," guess again. "Bacillus cereus is heat-resistant, so unfortunately, simply reheating a food after it has been temperature abused will not destroy the toxin," says Dr. Shumaker.

On a more hopeful note, Dr. Deering is less concerned about certain types of foods. "Typically, things that are very high in sugar don't support the growth of human pathogenic bacteria," she says. This means your brownies and cookies are less likely to make you sick if they stay out longer. That said, anything creamy or custardy (think: trifles, lemon bars, banana cream pie) needs to be given the Danger Zone treatment.

These inflatable trays act like table coolers to help keep food from warming up too quickly. Just blow 'em up with the included hand pump, fill 'em with ice and place your prized coleslaw on top. As the ice melts, you can open the built-in drain plug to release water — just be sure to replenish it to keep everything chilled. 

"We used these for my son's graduation party," explained a buyer. "It was so easy to inflate and helped the lunchmeat stay cold, even in 85°F heat. We just tipped them over to dump the water."

$23 at Amazon

So, you prepare a batch of baked beans the day before you plan on serving them at a barbecue. What's the best way to keep them fresh between then and now? When it comes to hot food, "you want to get it as cool as possible, as quickly as possible," according to Dr. Deering. Dr. Shumaker adds, "Because toxin formation occurs in the temperature Danger Zone, it is important to cool foods quickly."

That said, you don't want to place a piping-hot pot straight into a cold fridge. Why? "It is not recommended to put large containers of hot food in the fridge because the food in the center of the pot will not cool down quickly enough to avoid the temperature Danger Zone," explains Dr. Shumaker. "It is recommended to divide large portions of hot food into shallow containers to allow foods to cool more quickly before putting into the fridge."

Dr. Deering agrees. "If you have a smaller container that's packed full, that's going to take a long time for that internal part of the food to get cold, so then you risk that you're in that danger zone. If you have a bigger container with not as much food, that's going to cool a lot faster."

As far as the material of your container is concerned, neither Dr. Deering nor Dr. Shumaker have a clear preference, though they both stressed the importance of having a good seal to keep air out. However, with concerns about ingesting microplastics on the rise, you may want to consider using glass containers — especially if you plan on microwaving them or using them for hot foods, which can cause them to release more of those tiny particles.

It's time to chuck all of your mismatched food storage containers and replace them with this fan-favorite set. It comes with 12 round and rectangular containers — ranging from 11-35 ounces — which are clear so you can easily see their contents. Since they're made of borosilicate glass, the containers are dishwasher-, oven- and microwave-safe (just not the lids), and their airtight silicone seals help prevent leaks while keeping food fresh.

"Absolutely love how versatile these containers are," gushed a buyer. "The glass is sturdy and [the] lids are easy to clean and do not stain. Both containers and lids did well in my top rack dishwasher without any warping. I put soup in the container and flipped it upside down on my counter just to test if it would leak, and not one drop escaped through the seal."

Check out our roundup of the best food storage containers for more. 

$30 at Amazon

I know, that was a lot of information — the key takeaways? "Try to keep foods cold as long as possible by using coolers with ice or ice packs, and consider only serving small portions at a time." says Dr. Shumaker. "Otherwise, I just make sure my fridge is kept at 41°F or below to maximize shelf life."

When it doubt, Dr. Deering has an easy-to-remember motto to abide by: "Keep cold things cold and hot things hot!" Happy (and safe) eating!

If you have Amazon Prime, you’ll get free shipping, of course. Not yet a member? No problem. You can sign up for your free 30-day trial here. (And by the way, those without Prime still get free shipping on orders of $25 or more.)

The reviews quoted above reflect the most recent versions at the time of publication.