Food safety is important to remember when transporting food for the holidays

Wondering how long food can sit in a car? Remember food safety protocols during holiday travel.

Windy road with trees changing colors lining it.

Traditions are a wonderful part of the holiday season. It’s common that at gatherings, rather than one person bearing the burden of preparing the entire meal, several people divide the duties prior to getting together. Then, on the day, one person will then bring the veggies, another rolls, another salad, another dessert, etc. 

When dividing the tasks, keep in mind food safety and consider two important factors: the type of food being transported and the length of time involved. Michigan State University Extension (MSU) recommends applying the two-hour rule - do not leave perishable foods at room temperature for longer than two hours. Remember the two-hour rule includes the time involved prepping foods from their raw state to the finished state, as well as the time the food will spend on the table being served.

Family members traveling long distances should be assigned foods that may not need refrigeration, like fruit pies, rolls, etc. Local relatives (within a half hour travel distance or less) should be in charge of more perishable items such as meat, poultry, fish, cut produce or cooked casseroles.

Keep in mind, hot foods must be kept hot (140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher) and cold foods, kept cold (40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder). To keep the hot foods hot, consider using an insulated bag designed to keep foods warm. Remember, these bags are temporary and not designed for long-term hot holding. Keep your cold food cold by utilizing a cooler packed with ice or freezer gel packs. Do not rely on the outside temperature to keep food cold even during freezing winters. Cars and garages can take on a “greenhouse effect” and actually become warm, defeating the purpose of attempting to store cold foods outside.

If you are the host house, plan ahead for your feast by clearing your refrigerator out ahead of time and creating room to store the food that will be arriving. Have extra coolers on hand with ice or freezer packs for cold foods and borrow roasters or slow cookers to help keep all the arriving hot food heated. Don’t forget to have plenty of refrigerator containers or plastic food grade bags on hand for the leftovers after the meal. Putting large quantities of food into smaller containers will allow the food to cool quickly and remain safe by preventing any bacteria from growing. Also, ensure leftovers are not left out at room temperature or in the temperature danger zone (40 degrees – 140 degrees Fahrenheit).

Michigan State University Extension recommends planning your larger meals out ahead of time, be prepared and make room in your kitchen for storage before and after the meal to prevent foodborne illness from ruining your family gatherings.

Michigan State University Extension offers programs related to food preservation, food safety, food health and more. To find a program near you visit

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