Kristina Beaugh, MPH, is a member of the Food Safety Education Staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service.
With Thanksgiving behind us, the holiday season is just beginning to gear up. The next several weeks are sure to be full of good cheer. With all of the family gatherings, dinner parties with friends, and office potlucks, the amount of food is sure to be plentiful. And lots of food means lots of opportunities for foodborne bacteria to make us sick. For people with cancer, foodborne illness can lead to serious infection, hospitalization, or even death. Whether you are hosting or just attending these holiday parties, you can protect yourself and those you care for this holiday season with five food safety tips for cooking for groups.
Tip #1: Reheat Food to the Right Temperature
Many dishes that are made for potlucks or office parties require reheating either upon arrival or once the party starts. Food items to be served hot should be reheated to 165°F, as measured with a food thermometer, using a microwave, stove, or oven. Do not reheat food in your slow cooker because it will take too long to heat up. Instead, heat your food in the microwave or oven , then transfer it to a preheated slow cooker to keep it hot for serving—at least 140°F as measured with a food thermometer.
Tip #2: Keep Hot Food Hot
Hot items are best served immediately after cooking or reheating. When serving hot foods on a buffet line or at a potluck, foods should be held at 140°F or warmer. You can keep hot food hot with chafing dishes, slow cookers, and warming trays.
Tip #3: Keep Cold Food Cold
Foods that are to be served cold should remain in the refrigerator for as long as possible. If you are transporting cold dishes, place them in a cooler with plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. Once served, cold foods should be held at 40°F or colder. You can keep cold foods cold by nesting serving dishes into bowls of ice.
Tip #4: Use Small Platters
For both hot and cold items, arrange and serve food on several small platters rather than one large platter. Keep extras in the fridge and reheat as needed. This allows you to frequently replace the food, always having fresh items for guests to enjoy!
Tip #5: Remember the Two Hour Rule
Be sure to keep track of the time! Perishable foods should not sit out at room temperature for more than two hours. After two hours, bacteria multiply rapidly and have the potential to make party guests sick. If food has been sitting out for too long, throw it away. Foods like cookies, crackers, bread, and whole fruit are exceptions to the two-hour rule.
If you have additional food safety questions, you can call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 888-674-6854 or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskUSDA available from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish.