Cooking for a crowd

Tis’ the season for confirmations, graduations, family reunions and weddings.

Serving food at special occasions requires careful planning, cooking and serving to avoid foodborne illness.
Serving food at special occasions requires careful planning, cooking and serving to avoid foodborne illness.

Cooking for a crowd takes planning in order to keep the food safe and everyone healthy.           

When planning for a large event, be sure to have all the right equipment ahead of time. Equipment should include plenty of wash, rinsed and sanitized cutting boards, food thermometers, cookware, shallow storage containers, hot and cold holding equipment, soap, water and paper towels. It is also necessary to make sure there is plenty of refrigerator and freezer space available. 

Another key part of planning involves shopping for the food. Purchase canned goods that are free of dents, leaks, bulging and rust. Bulging and leaking cans are signs that dangerous foodborne pathogens are growing inside. 

Raw meat, poultry and seafood need to be separated from the other food, both in the shopping cart and in the refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination.

Cold and frozen foods need to be purchased last. It is best to drive directly home after making purchases at the grocery store. For perishable foods take a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs to keep perishable foods preserved during transportation. Perishable foods need to be refrigerated within two hours of purchase. If the temperature outside is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit the time is reduced to one hour.

A refrigerator thermometer is one way to confirm the refrigerator temperature is reading accurate. The thermometer should read 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. The thermometer should be placed in the middle of the refrigerator near the front where it will be the warmest. This will ensure that the warmest part of the refrigerator is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, thus keeping the food cold enough to prevent growth of harmful food bacteria. If the refrigerator is not below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the refrigerator will need to be set colder.

Meat, poultry and seafood should be stored in containers so that raw meat juices do not drip on already prepared foods. The raw meat juices contain bacteria that could cause foodborne illness.

When preparing the food for a crowd, it is important to be extra vigilant about washing with hot soapy water, rinsing, sanitizing and air drying counter tops, cutting boards, utensils and hands. To make a sanitizing solution, use one tablespoon unscented, liquid chlorine bleach to one gallon of water. If these food safety practices are not followed, it is possible to spread foodborne illness bacteria all over the kitchen.

Cooking the food requires that the internal temperature of the food reach a minimum internal cooking temperature to kill foodborne illness pathogens. This minimum internal cooking temperature varies depending upon the food. The way to verify that the internal temperature has been reached is with a food thermometer. Take the temperature of the food in at least two different places. If the food is not hot enough, continue cooking.

When serving food at large gathering events, be sure to keep hot foods hot and cold food cold. This means keeping food out of the temperature danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. To keep foods hot use chafing dishes, preheated steam tables, warming trays and, or slow cookers. Holding foods at hot temperatures for long periods of time will reduce the quality of the food product. Check the temperature frequently to make sure it is above 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

To keep cold foods cold, place the cold food on beds of ice. Use a deep container partially filled with ice to help keep the food cold. As the ice melts, it will be necessary to drain the water and frequently replace the ice.

For clean-up discard all perishable foods, such as meat poultry, eggs and casseroles that have been out more than two hours. Remember if the temperatures have been above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the time limit is one hour. The only foods that can be safely kept after the two hour are cake, cookies, crackers, breads and whole fruit.

The remaining leftovers should be divided into shallow containers for quick cooling, then immediately refrigerated or frozen. Leftovers, that are not frozen, should be used within four days. Leftovers should be reheated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remember, tis’ the season for confirmations, graduations, family reunions and weddings. Serving food at these occasions requires careful planning, purchasing, cooking and serving to avoid unwanted foodborne illness.

For further information contact the local county Michigan State University Extension office or refer to the following resources:

Basics for Handling Food Safely

"Danger Zone" (40 °F - 140 °F)

Leftovers and Food Safety

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