How to Provide Food Safely for People With Cancer

May 23, 2019
Nirav Shah, MBA, MPH

Nirav Shah, MBA, MPH, is a member of the Food Safety Education Staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Family, friends, and neighbors often want to know what they can do to help a person with cancer. One common suggestion is that they can drop off dinner. Meal registry websites make it easy to create a calendar with the recipient’s food likes, dislikes, restrictions, and allergies, and for people to sign up to cook or order meals. But how should these meals be prepared and delivered to make sure no one eating them gets sick from foodborne illness? Food safety is especially important during and after cancer treatment.share on twitter

Prepare meals safely

As you prepare a meal for a person with cancer, be sure to:

  • Clean hands and surfaces. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before cooking, and wipe down preparation surfaces often. Don’t wash poultry, beef, pork, lamb, or veal before cooking because this can spread harmful bacteria. 

  • Separate foods. Don't cross-contaminate foods. Keep raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood, and their juices, away from ready-to-eat foods.

  • Cook to the right temperature. Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and egg products need to be cooked to the right temperature to kill harmful bacteria that may be present. Use a food thermometer to ensure each food reaches its appropriate temperature.

  • Chill foods. Refrigerate meals promptly. Don’t leave them at room temperature for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour when the outside temperature is above 90°F (32°C).

Order meals safely

If you’re ordering a perishable meal instead of cooking it yourself, be sure that:

  • The company you’re ordering from sends perishable items, such as meat and poultry, cold or frozen and packed with a cold source. 

  • Meals are packaged in a foam container or a heavy, corrugated cardboard container.

  • Delivery occurs as quickly as possible—ideally, the same day or overnight.

Receive meals safely

Remind the person receiving the meal to:

  • Wash their hands. Before they eat any meals delivered to them, they should wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

  • Store leftovers quickly. Help them divide perishable food items into smaller portions and place them into a shallow container. Place the container in the refrigerator or freezer within 2 hours of delivery.

  • Reheat leftovers correctly. Food should be reheated to 165°F (74°C), as measured with a food thermometer. When reheating a meal in the microwave, it should be evenly spread out and covered. Microwaves can have cold spots, so foods should be stirred halfway through cooking. A food thermometer should be used to ensure the temperature has reached 165°F (74°C) in multiple places. 

Need more food safety information? Call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE (1-888-674-6854) or email You can also chat live with a USDA food safety specialist at, available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish.

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