During these few carefree weeks left before school starts again, lots of families enjoy cookouts and picnics.

But there may be some uninvited guests at your backyard barbecue or picnic in the park: germs in the food that can give you cramps and diarrhea, or make you want to throw up. These symptoms of food poisoning can show up within hours or not until the day after your picnic. Whenever they appear, they're impossible to ignore.

Although it's not much fun to think about, summer is the peak time for food-borne illness, reports the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Luckily, a few simple safety precautions can help you slow down the germs.

* Eat first, play later. The longer food sits out before being eaten, the more likely it is to spoil and become hazardous. Limit the time food sits out at a picnic to less than an hour, especially on a hot day.

* Always use a cooler to transport and store picnic foods. Put ice on top of food to keep it cool. (Cold air sinks, so putting ice only on the bottom means that food at the top doesn't stay cool enough.)

* Make sure the items to be packed have already been chilled to refrigerator temperature before placing them in the cooler.

* When you get to your picnic spot, keep the cooler in a shady place to keep the temperature inside cool for as long as possible.

* If you're cooking chicken, burgers or hot dogs at your picnic, use pre-moistened towelettes to clean your hands after handling these raw foods.

* Don't put cooked food on plates that were used to hold raw meat or poultry. Also, don't reuse utensils that have touched raw foods.

* Make sure the cookout chef cooks meat thoroughly.

* Germs can live on produce as well as meat and dairy products. All fruits and vegetables, including melons, berries and leafy greens, should be washed well under running water in your kitchen before you pack them in the cooler.

* Keep the vegetables and fruits for your picnic chilled for as long as possible. Eat them up as soon as you're served.

Now that you know how to be careful about food poisoning, it's time to think about staying safe around your grill. In July, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released tips for using grills. Please share them with your mom and dad.

Kids should never light grills themselves. When an outdoor grill is in use, adults must be present to make sure no one gets burned. Keep a sharp eye on smaller children who are running and playing around the area where your picnic is set up. The CPSC also warns families never to burn charcoal inside homes, vehicles, tents or campers. Charcoal releases a colorless, odorless gas called carbon monoxide when it is burned. In a closed space, the gas can build up to dangerous levels very quickly.

When you prepare for family cookouts and picnics, pack a little common sense along with the hot dogs, watermelon and potato salad.

Tips for Parents

Last month the American Dietetic Association released a study of Americans' knowledge about food safety practices. About 70 percent of survey respondents store a cooler of food in the car trunk rather than inside the air-conditioned car and 40 percent did not know that they should clean a picnic cooler between uses with soap and water. But the majority of those questioned did know to wash hands during food preparation at a picnic site (53 percent) and to use separate utensils (58 percent) and plates (81 percent) for raw and grilled foods.

The ADA offers these basic rules for food safety at home and when you pack a picnic:

* Wash hands often.

* Keep raw meats and ready-to-eat foods separate.

* Cook everything to proper temperatures (internal temperatures of 160 degrees for ground meat, 180 degrees for poultry) and refrigerate foods promptly below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

* Never leave foods out in warm weather for more than one hour.

"We want these four easy actions to become second nature in the kitchen or at the grill," says Joan Horbiak, ADA dietitian and food safety expert. Her group is seeking to make food safety as much of a way of life as strapping on seat belts in the car.

"We want Americans to use meat thermometers and wash their hands more often!" she said.

For You to Do

Nobody wants to get sick from all that fun summer food. Using the information you just read, make a safety checklist to help your parents get a picnic packed up before you leave the house. Photocopy the checklist so you can use it every time you're going to eat outdoors this summer.

Illustrate it with funny pictures or photographs you cut from magazines. Your stomach will thank you for protecting it from the nasty symptoms that come with food-borne illness.