5 Clever & Easy Ways to Keep Food Warm at a Picnic

Easy ways to keep hot foods warm at a picnic, tailgate, or potluck.

A picnic is a great way to enjoy and celebrate that art of “gathering to eat” while being “unplugged” from modern life. Unplugging from “the grind” also means unplugging from appliances that we use to prepare and warm our favorite foods! We need workarounds.

Keeping your food warm at a picnic isn’t just about making sure everything is hot and delicious. Food temperature is also essential for keeping everyone at your picnic safe. If food is allowed to sit out below a certain temperature, you’re opening up everyone in attendance to risks for foodborne illnesses!

It is possible to enjoy safe, hot foods when you’re “eating in the wild” during a picnic. However, you’ll need to plan in advance to make sure you have all the right gear in place. Take a look at a simple guide to keeping your picnic foods warm!

How Warm Should Picnic Foods Be?

Relying on guesswork is a recipe for spoiled, dangerous food. Luckily, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion provides temperature guidelines that we can all use for safe picnic eating. Hot foods should be kept at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above. Foods are no longer considered safe to consume if they’ve been allowed to sit at below 140 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours.

Tips for How to Keep Food Warm at a Picnic

Your plan to keep food warm during a picnic or potluck should begin before you leave your house! First, make an effort to take food out of the oven as close to your departure time as possible. Every minute that a hot dish sits on your kitchen counter takes away from its “eatable” lifespan.

You should also keep food covered. This can mean anything from a towel to a lid. In addition to keeping food warm, coverings keep out contaminants that can cause your food to spoil. Next, take a look at some specific tools for keeping hot picnic dishes warm!

1. Audit Your Picnic Basket

You may love the quaint look of your current picnic basket. However, a standard wicker or woven picnic basket may be too porous to retain heat. That means that heat is seeping from the cervices and openings in the basket from the moment you place your food inside. It may be time to upgrade to an insulated picnic basket.

When picking out an insulated picnic basket, you have many styles to choose from. Some brands actually recreate that classic wooden or wicker look using a lined interior. However, deciding that you care more about substance than style allows you to move toward some heavy-duty cloth picnic baskets and backpacks with extreme insulation. While these picnic baskets often look more like luggage than actual picnic baskets, they offer extreme insulation that will do a better job of protecting you against food spoilage. An added bonus is that these upgraded picnic baskets are typically designed to be much easier to pack and carry.

2. Thermal Bags

A thermal bag is a great option if you don’t necessarily need to keep the entire contents of your picnic basket warm. A thermal bag is a smart supplement to your existing picnic basket if you don’t want to make the leap to a new insulated design! Typically, you’ll get about three hours of extended warmth from an insulated bag. That means that a bag works nicely if you want to keep food at a safe temperature during a one-hour to two-hour drive to your picnic spot.

3. Insulated Casserole Carriers

This is a good option if you have a signature “casserole” hot dish that you always bring to picnics and potlucks! While many brands sell casserole carriers, you can easily pick up a Pyrex carrier that fits standard casserole dishes. Bringing your hot food to the party is as simple as zipping and unzipping with this option!

4. Add Heat Packs to Your Picnic Basket

The way you transport and serve hot dishes may be about to change forever if you’re just discovering heat packs for the first time. While most of us are familiar with cold packs that are used to keep cold foods brisk, heat packs get less attention. Hot packs aren’t always easy to find in stores. You can find packs from well-known brands like Pyrex if you look online.

The disclaimer here is that hot packs aren’t effective for keeping large quantities of food warm. However, one or two packs should be enough to keep a casserole dish warm. Heat packs absorb their warmth in the microwave. When using heat packs during transport, you can wrap your dish in tin foil or a cloth towel before placing the heat pack over it. When using a heat pack during serving, simply place it under your hot dish.

5. The “Hot Brick” Method

This one’s an interesting option if you like to do things the old-fashioned way without buying any fancy, new gear! You can actually use some spare bricks from your garden to keep foods warm and toasty. Here’s how this trick works:

  • Preheat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Wrap several bricks in aluminum foil.
  • Next, add your bricks to your preheated oven.
  • Let the bricks stay in the oven for 20 minutes.
  • Carefully remove the bricks from the oven. Be careful not to touch them directly with your hands to avoid burns!
  • Wrap the bricks in a towel.
  • Place the wrapped bricks at the bottom of your basket or cooler.
  • Place your dishes and foods over the wrapped bricks.
  • Place something like a towel or sheet of cardboard over the packed food before closing the lid!

Using this method, you can often get about six hours of warmth. There are some words of caution to know about when attempting to use bricks to keep food warm. First, make sure your cooler can withstand the heat of the bricks. A cooler made of plastic or a synthetic, low-quality material may actually melt or warp from the heat. You should also be prepared for the fact that these bricks will make your cooler significantly heavier to carry. Keep that in mind if you’ll be lugging your food to a remote area without any assistance!

The Final Thing to Know About How to Keep Food Warm at a Picnic

All of these methods should allow you to keep your warm dishes warm longer. However, food temperature is not a guessing game! This is why the supplement to any of the tips mentioned above is always a basic food thermometer. As you enjoy your picnic, check food temperatures about once an hour for peace of mind.

You can mix and match these tips for maximum warming as you relax, play, and mingle at a picnic! However, you should never assume that food is safe just because you’ve used one of these methods. Keep that thermometer handy to test your hot dishes on the hour!

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