How Long Can You Leave Groceries In a Hot Car Before They Spoil?

I grew up in a small farming town in Idaho with a really big family of eight children so once a month my parents would make a pilgrimage to the nearest city and go to Costco and Winco to get groceries for our family for the month. They’d pack coolers and fill the trunk and car to the brim with groceries. When they’d pull up we’d all be so excited to go see what they got and of course call dibs on our favorite foods.

My parents were geniuses at efficiently getting the groceries inside and put away in no time at all with all of us kids helping out.

That was awfully wise of them to put that cooler in the car. It would take them at least a couple of hours to do all that shopping plus the 45 minute drive home. That is a lot of time for those foods to be sitting in a hot car in the summertime, creating a perfect environment for bacteria to grow.

Bacteria grows the most in the danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees.

Did you know that temperatures can soar sitting in a car on a hot, sunny day as high as 172 degrees (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)? This is certainly not ideal for things like dairy, meat or fish. That number can drop quickly after you crank up the air conditioner or roll down the windows but the damage might already be done.

So how long do you really have before that gallon of milk or package or pork chops starts to spoil? The rule of thumb is to not keep perishable food at room temperature for more than two hours. Do not leave food out for more than one hour if the outside temperature is 90 degrees F or hotter. This rule also applies to take-out foods and leftovers from a restaurant.

Here are a few tips to keep your groceries chilled for the longest amount of time:

--If you have several errands to run, make the grocery store your last stop so it is less time sitting out in your hot car

--Try to go to the dairy and meat aisles last, to ensure that those items spend the least amount of time in your cart

--If you’ve got a long drive home it is probably worth it to pack a cooler to keep things extra chilled

--Keep the items in the passenger area of your car, rather than your trunk where it is the hottest

--Head straight home and get everything into the fridge and freezer as fast as you can

Maybe these tips sound a little hypervigilant, but if you’ve ever had food poisoning, I think you would agree that it is worth taking the time to avoid it where you can.

You might also be wondering why I’m bring this up after summer is about over. Well, for one thing, it is still so dang hot where I live, we are still well into the 90’s most days—so I’m still dealing with the super hot car thing every day :) But, keep in the mind that bacteria grows over 40 degrees so even on a mild day at 73 degrees outside, an SUV can heat up to 100 degrees in 10 minutes. So it is definitely something to keep in mind for most of the year.


    Mary Richardson
    Weekly Newsletter Contributor since 2014
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