Potluck paranoia

Potlucks allow family and friends a way to have a meal without one person doing all of the food preparation. Potlucks provide food for nourishment and companionship for the soul.

Potlucks! What a great way to taste a wide variety of delicious foods. Simply put, a potluck is a meal at which each guest, or family brings a dish that is shared by all. Unfortunately it can also be a great way to share a foodborne illness, if those providing the food aren’t careful when preparing their special dish to share.

Some people have potluck paranoia. Potluck paranoia or potluck willies may be experienced by some individuals, including myself, who are uncertain of the food preparation methods, sanitation and unknown ingredients of the food being shared. Since a potluck should be an enjoyable time, Michigan State University Extension has the follow suggestions to help make sure there is no reason for potluck paranoia.

Personal hygiene

Poor personal hygiene is a leading cause of foodborne illness. Hand washing is easy and something everyone can do. Hands are just like equipment. They can easily contaminate food and they need to be washed when you begin preparing your food and then between each task.

Don’t wear fingernail polish when preparing food since it could chip into the food – which is pretty unappetizing, when you think about it.

If you have longer hair, pull your hair back with a hair tie.

Cleaning and sanitizing

There is no doubt that clean hands are essential, but so are clean utensils, dishes, cutting boards, counter tops, tables and any surface the food may come in contact with while it is being prepared, or after it has been prepared.

To clean and sanitize your work surfaces, utensils and dishes:

  1. Wash with hot, soapy water
  2. Rinse
  3. Sanitize
  4. Allow to air dry

An effective sanitizing solution is one teaspoon of regular strength, unscented liquid chlorine bleach (5.25 percent sodium hypochlorite) per gallon of warm water. Sanitizing is a separate step. Don’t add bleach to the wash water because soap weakens the chlorine and makes it ineffective. The sanitizing solution is to be used after the rinse and then allowing to dry. If you choose to use the kitchen sanitizing wipes read and follow the instructions.


Cross-contamination is when bacteria and viruses are transferred from one surface or food to another. The best way to prevent cross-contamination is to keep raw foods away from ready to eat foods. An example of this would be to keep raw chicken you are preparing away from the vegetable tray you will be taking.

Time-temperature abuse

The temperature danger zone is 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Minimize the time food spends in the temperature danger zone, whether you are purchasing, storing, preparing, thawing, cooking, holding, cooling, serving or reheating food. You need an accurate food thermometer to know the temperature of your food. Once you have cooked your food to the right temperature, you then need to keep hot foods hot – at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep cold foods cold at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is refrigerator temperature.

If you are traveling a long distance offer to bring non-perishable foods, like bread and cookies. Others living nearby can bring recipes that need to be kept cold or hot. Use a cooler to transport cold items and wrap hot food in foil and heavy towels, or use insulated carriers made for hot containers. Remember to bring serving utensils.

Remember that adults over the age 65, those with a chronic illness or a weakened immune system – regardless of their age and the very young are at a higher risk for foodborne illness, including death from a foodborne illness. There aren’t many gatherings where some of these susceptible people wouldn’t be part of the group, so be sure to safely prepare your potluck dish.

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