Ask Addie: How long can I leave groceries in the car on a hot day?

Austin traffic plus hot afternoons plus a car full of groceries is a situation that many of us find ourselves troubleshooting during the summer months.

How long can you leave groceries in the car? It depends what’s in the bags, but for perishables, no more than an hour on a really hot day. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

I reached out to the H-E-B Curbside team to find out how they answer questions like:

  • If I stop for groceries on the way to pick up the kids, do I have enough time to go by the library before the ice cream melts or the lunch meat spoils?
  • Raw chicken breasts are on sale at a store near where I work in Austin, but I live in Kyle. Do I need an insulated bag to make it home with them safely?
  • Should I store bottles of wine in the backseat, where they might be exposed to the sun, or in the trunk, where the temperatures might be higher?

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Bacteria love warmth, moisture and nutrients, and a hot car with bags of groceries provides just that. Foods that require refrigeration are the top priority for keeping cool. Frozen foods are a concern, too, but you have less time with refrigerated meats and fresh produce, which can harbor the rapid growth of dangerous bacteria if you’re not careful.

When sacking your groceries, make sure to store the perishable foods together, as well as the meats and frozen foods in their own respective bags. MARLON SORTO / AHORA SI

According to food safety experts at H-E-B, perishable food can stay safely unrefrigerated for two hours if the air temperature is under 90 degrees and only for one hour if the temperature is 90 degrees or higher. This is true for foods transported in a car or bag or when you’re having a picnic or a barbecue outside.

You don’t need to worry about shelf-stable foods unless they have an element that could melt in the heat, such as chocolate chips in granola bars or trail mix, but you do need to take extra care with meat, deli, dairy, fresh fruit, frozen foods and prepared dishes, including rotisserie chicken, pasta salad or ready-to-bake pizzas. Treat restaurant leftovers with care, too, keeping them refrigerated and not in a warm car for more than 30 minutes or an hour at most.

Here are some other tips to keep in mind:

  • Try to plan your trips so that you are going straight home from the store. If you have to make another stop, keep it at less than 15 minutes so your total time en route isn’t more than 30 minutes or, at most, an hour.
  • Be aware of the type of food you’re buying, and adjust accordingly if you have errands to run. Stop at the cleaners or for coffee before grocery shopping, not afterward when your groceries will be baking in the car.
  • If you have to stop somewhere, park in the shade or keep groceries out of direct sunlight. Wine should never be exposed to direct sunlight, so make sure the bottles or bags with other perishables are covered with a towel or other form of shade.
  • When buying foods that melt quickly, such as ice cream, consider putting the bag or food in a cooler with ice packs.
  • Don’t leave your cooler in the car, however, because it will hold and release heat, even with cold gel packs in the bottom. You could buy a bag of ice to put in the cooler if you have an extra-long trip ahead of you. Insulated bags are the next best thing to coolers, and they don’t hold as much heat if left in your car before shopping.
  • If you’re helping to bag your own groceries, keep in mind what the grocery store employees are already trained to do: Store like foods together. Perishable foods belong in a bag with other perishable foods so they help keep each other cool on the way home. Keep meats and frozen foods in their own respective bags.
  • Put groceries away as soon as you get home. After 45 minutes in the car, another 30 minutes on the counter won’t do your perishables any favors. They might not make you sick, but some foods, such as milk, might expire more quickly if not handled properly.

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