With July being National Picnic Month and National Grill Month, area residents may be enjoying more meals outside.

Escaping the ordinary dining areas, outdoor meals can add to the sense of community or build family bonds.

On Wednesday, Action Loan and Liberty Finance Inc. hosted an Independence Day Cookout, offering community members free hot dogs, chips, cookies, drinks, and watermelon. Plus, a gas grill was given away, and was won by Tom Bradford.

"The reason we do it is to spend time with customers and have fun. Plus, we get to throw a party with the staff," said Amelia Wells, owner. "It's not summer without watermelon."

Since it was the sixth year for the event, Wells said they knew how much food to have on hand.

"It brings everyone together," said Tameika Smith, corporate manager. "What's more American than a hot dog?"

After the hot dogs were grilled, the cooked food was kept covered inside.

"Whatever we don't cook, we donate to the Day Center," said Wells.

With the summer heat, safely handling foods that need refrigeration or to be cooked is important.

"When planning a cookout in your backyard, a park or other outdoor venue, keep in mind that perishable foods should not sit out for more than two hours. If the temperature is extremely warm, cut that time frame back to an hour," said Heather Winn, OSU Extension family and consumer science educator.

Any leftovers should be promptly refrigerated or put in a cooler, or if they are left out too long, the food should be thrown out. Any foods that were left out too long should be discarded.

Eating outside means having a water source close by, or bringing some along, so hands and surfaces food will touch are kept clean.

"If you have guests who want to help with the cooking or preparation, make sure they have thoroughly washed their hands, too," said Winn. "Surfaces that come into contact with raw foods should be cleaned before starting another food preparation project."

Vegetables, fruits or other foods that do not need to be cooked should be kept separate from raw meats. Some people choose to have two separate coolers when they picnic: one for raw meats and one for other foods and drinks.

For those about to use a grill for their get-togethers, all equipment should be checked before lighting a fire. July is the peak month for grilling fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

"The NFPA reports that seven out of every 10 adults in the U.S. have a grill or a smoker," said Arthur Kelley of Servpro of Muskogee/McIntosh Counties & Tahlequah in a press release. "That statistic really highlights the risk that homeowners face of experiencing a home fire caused by grilling and other open flame cooking. It's important to take some basic safety steps to help ensure you'll spend your summer enjoying friends and family and not dealing with the aftermath of a grill-related house fire."

Grease or fat buildup on the grill and in tray below should be removed. The grill should be kept away from the house and deck railings, as well as out from under trees.

Propane grills should be checked for leaks.

"It doesn't take long to prepare your grill for safe cooking, but it can take months to recover from a fire and the resulting flame, smoke, and water damage," said Kelley.

After the grill is going and food is cooking, the best tool to have on hand, according to Winn, is a food thermometer.

"Not only does the use of a thermometer reduce the risk of foodborne illness, but it can also help the cook get meat off the grill when it is still juicy and tender by preventing overcooking," said Winn. "Be sure to use a clean platter when you take meat or vegetables off the grill. The juices that were left on the plate when the meat was raw can create a danger of cross-contamination with cooked foods."