How to serve safe food when cooking for large groups

Food safety practices are critical when preparing food for large groups.

Hot dogs and burgers cooking on a grill.
The color of meat is not a reliable indicator of whether it is cooked properly.

Have you ever prepared food for a large group, such as a graduation party or a potluck? Deciding on the food and purchasing supplies is essential and not easily overlooked, but how much attention is paid to keeping that food safe to eat? Keeping food stored at a safe temperature, making sure prep areas and equipment are clean and sanitized prior to use, cooling food properly, and storing food in a safe way are all critical steps that can easily be forgotten. If these critical steps are overlooked, you can place those that consume your food at risk of developing a foodborne illness. 

While the way we prepare food in our home for our family may not be quite as rigorous as the food safety steps described below, paying attention to these details is doubly important when preparing food for large groups. Why? The people you prepare food for in your own home may not be at high risk of getting sick. However, certain groups are considered high risk, such as young children, the elderly and those with an immune compromised system – and chances are, one of these groups will be eating your food. 

Keeping food cool

Beginning with grocery shopping, keeping food cool is important. Foodborne pathogens multiply rapidly between 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit, otherwise known as the temperature danger zone. Plan to get groceries at a time when they can be refrigerated promptly, or placed in a cooler if there are other errands that need to be done following the purchase of groceries. 

Think you can always trust your refrigerator temperature? Not always, and not all refrigerators have a built-in thermometer (the true measure for keeping food at proper storage temperature). According to FightBac, a non-profit organization aimed at educating consumers to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness, “almost half (43 percent) of observed homes had a refrigerator that was too warm (greater than 41 degrees F), and just 4–9 percent of domestic refrigerators were observed to have a thermometer (that tells the temperature in degrees). Also, the predicted number of cases of listeriosis would be reduced by more than 70 percent if all home refrigerator temperatures stayed at 40 degrees F or below.” 

Storing food properly in a refrigerator can prevent cross-contamination. Covering all food and storing raw meat and poultry below ready-to-eat food are two steps to take to prevent this. If food needs to be thawed – planning ahead and thawing in the refrigerator is the best practice. However, alternatively, it can be thawed while cooking, under cool (70 degrees F) running water or in the microwave (as long as it is cooked following microwaving). 

Use clean and sanitized surfaces and equipment

It is a common practice to wash surfaces, utensils and equipment in hot soapy water used for food preparation, but many do not go the extra step and sanitize. This extra step helps ensure that pathogens have been reduced to safe levels. A food safe sanitizing agent can be purchased or you can mix your own solution using 1 tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach with 1 gallon of water.  Cleaning and sanitizing should be done after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food.

Cook food to the proper temperature

The “doneness” of meat cannot be determined by looking at it. The color of meat is not a reliable indicator of whether it is cooked properly. Cooking food to the proper temperature helps ensure that pathogens are killed, and this may be a different temperature for different food. For example, pork chops and fish need to be cooked to 145 degrees F, ground beef to 160 degrees F, and poultry to 165 degrees F. The United States Department of Agriculture provides a more detailed list of proper cooking temperatures. The temperature is based on the internal temperature and would need to be checked using a proper food thermometer, these can be a dial gauge or digital and can be purchased at most food supply stores and calibrated regularly. 

Cool food correctly

Following the preparation of potentially hazardous food, it should be cooled quickly prior to placing in the refrigerator. If spaghetti sauce was prepared for example, cool it by placing the pot in a sink of ice water while stirring, or clean ice can be added as an ingredient. Dividing food into shallow pans before placing in the refrigerator will also allow it to pass through the temperature danger zone quickly. 

Holding

After food has been purchased, prepped, and stored, the next consideration is serving. After putting all of that work into preparing your dish, keep it at a safe temperature to prevent pathogens from multiplying. Food should not be held at room temperature, cold food should be kept cold, and hot food hot.

If you are considering offering food for large groups, this information and classes offered through MSU Extension can help provide guidance to be prepared and well informed to handle food safely.

Do you want to learn more?

To help people be healthy at every stage of life, Michigan State University Extension delivers affordable, relevant, evidence-based education to serve the needs of adults, youth and families in urban and rural communities.

Our programs cover all areas of health, from buying and preparing nutritious, budget-friendly food to managing stress, preventing or living well with diabetes and optimal aging – MSU Extension has the information you need in a format you can use, in-person and online. Contact your local MSU Extension county office to find a class near you.


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