Summer time parties, keep the food safe!

Make sure guests leave with happy memories and not a foodborne illness brewing in their stomachs.

Summer time is just around the corner and with it comes a mailbox of invitations to graduation parties, family reunions and other fun gatherings. If you are on the planning side of one of these events you need to take a few minutes to plan not only your menu, but the mechanics of the day to make sure your guests leave with only happy memories and not some awful foodborne illness brewing in their stomach.

The concept of feeding more than six to eight people takes on a whole different feel when you have to think about cooking and keeping hot food hot and cold food cold during the celebration you are planning. Quite often our home setting is not equipped to deal with buffets, large grilling events or storage facilities to keep food out of the range where bacteria loves to grow, between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, better known as the temperature danger zone.

In addition to planning how long you will be serving food; Michigan State University Extension suggests that it is a good time to make sure your kitchen equipment is clean and in working order. Do you have a food thermometer to take the temperatures of your hot and cold foods? It is a very important tool for the party planner and cook. Does your crock-pot heat up and maintain an appropriate temperature to hold food at 140 degrees Fahrenheit? Where will you be putting the food, is it away from bugs and pets? Will you be able to handle the increased use of electrical appliances for the day? Can your refrigerator handle the extra traffic you will be generating with prep, storage and usage the day of the event?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Kitchen Companion,” if you are cooking ahead of the event, the possibility of bacterial growth is greater when food cools, because the drop in temperature allows bacteria to grow. The plan is to keep your food out of the temperature danger zone by following these tips:

  • Don’t interrupt cooking: Interrupted cooking will allow partially cooked food to cool down, creating an atmosphere for bacterial growth to happen. To prevent this, make sure all food is thoroughly cooked the first time. When it is reheated for serving it must be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and can then be maintained at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above.
  • Keep food at holding temperatures: Not serving food right away? It is important to hold hot food at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. It is also very important to remember that food should be safely cooked or reheated on the stove, oven, grill or microwave prior to putting it in a hot holding device. Never use chafing dishes, warming trays, crock-pots, to heat foods up; always make sure the food has been cooked (or reheated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit) before putting in a hot holding device. While food is in these devices it is important to check temperatures frequently to make sure the food is staying hot at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above.
  • Can your electrical outlets handle the extra activity? Plugging in to many roasters, crock-pots etc. may cause breakers to blow and equipment to quit working. It may be advisable to stagger warming equipment using some electrical and chaffing devices that rely on flame warmers to keep food hot. These chafing dishes can be rented, borrowed and purchased from rental agencies, bulk food suppliers and sometimes caterers.
  • Keep cold food cold: Nest dishes in beds of ice. You don’t want cold (or hot) food in the temperature danger zone longer than two hours (one hour when the temperature is above 90 degrees).
  • Smaller is better: Don’t put out your whole salad (or other cold dish), instead, use several small bowls/platters. Never add fresh product onto what has been sitting out, always switch out containers frequently, keeping your food items cold and fresh.
  • Have you seen the ice tables? Some rental agencies now carry ice tables. These look like the eight foot plastic tables many of us set up at parties, except the ice table has a three to four inch well with a plug in the bottom of it. You can fill the well with ice and place all your salads and cold food in this table and it fits right into your buffet line! Keep in mind to continue with the small container theme so your salads and other cold products are always fresh.

Regardless of the weather, how quickly food is disappearing, remember two hour rule. Perishable food should not be left out longer than two hours at room temperature. A good guide to remember is, when in doubt, throw it out. Don’t let well-meaning folks pack up food that has been sitting out for the afternoon or evening to take home for leftovers. At the end of the party, for safety’s sake, if food hasn’t been consumed it should be tossed, if it has been sitting out. That is a tough pill for some to take, but better than a hospital bill with real pills to swallow.

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