Many holiday celebrations are centered around sharing food with family and friends. Because you only want to share love, not germs, food safety needs to be a part of the holiday meal planning process. Cooking for large groups presents a different set of food safety concerns than everyday cooking. In addition to the usual food safety 101, handwashing, safe thawing techniques and minimum internal temperature, here are some additional food safety steps to follow during holiday get-togethers.
Many holiday events are potluck-style, which means many guests will travel with food made ahead of time. As with everyday food safety, it’s important to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold to prevent bacteria growth. Transport cold food in a cooler with plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. Use an appliance thermometer in the cooler to make sure food is held at 40 °F or below. Hot food should be kept hot, at or above 140 °F. Wrap well with towels and place in an insulated container. A cooler can also work for keeping food warm since it is insulated. Once you arrive, reheat food to 165°F before serving.
When serving meals buffet-style, the same concept applies – keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. You can use a slow cooker or a chafing dish. Hot food can be held at 140°F for up to 4 hours. For cold foods, place in a second dish filled with ice or sit on ice packs. Cold food can be held at 40°F for up to 4 hours. Food held at room temperature should only sit out for 2 hours before being refrigerated or thrown away.
Pack up leftovers in shallow containers to help them cool quickly. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers immediately following service. If you’re short on fridge space, coolers filled with ice can hold food temporarily. Be sure to transport food home in coolers on ice or with frozen gel packs, too.
You can read a complete guide to cooking for large groups from USDA here. What other food safety questions do you have as you prepare for Thanksgiving?