Serving Guests Safely

Christmas dinnerYou didn’t invite invisible guests to your party, so don’t let them sneak in. Lock out those ugly pathogens that cause food-borne illness by following simple recommendations from food safety experts.

Hosts and hostesses usually prepare more than enough food, and guests rarely consume everything in sight, so, inevitably, after the event, party-givers often wind up with a packed refrigerator. Thankfully, food safety experts have also developed guidelines for safe handling of leftovers. 

Here’s what the experts have to say:

-DON’T keep perishable foods at room temperature (around 72ºF) for more than 2 hours. This 2-hour rule  provides protection against pathogens that cause food to spoil (taste, smell, or look bad) and also from those that cause illness. This rule includes preparation time and  should be applied to all perishable foods—such items as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy products (especially eggs and milk), cut-up fresh fruit, vegetables, casseroles, gravy, custard, and cream pies. 


-When serving buffet style, keep hot dishes hot with electrical appliances such as chafing dishes, steam trays, or slow cookers.  (A small candle under a big pot is not sufficient.) Place cold foods on a  bed of ice.  The goal is to keep hot foods at 140Fº or hotter and cold foods at 40ºF or cooler to avoid the 40ºF-140ºF temperature range, the “danger zone” in which microorganisms multiply rapidly.  Use a meat thermometer to confirm that foods are at the proper temperature. If you’re having a big crowd and some guests are bringing food, tactfully suggest ways to keep food hot or cold while in transit.


-DON’T use raw, unpasteurized eggs in homemade eggnog, Caesar salad dressing,  or any other recipe.  To avoid salmonella contamination, try one of these safe options: 1) Use store-bought pasteurized eggnog or salad dressing.  2) Pasteurize the eggs.  Google can lead you to sites that tell you how, but note that the process requires patience and an accurate thermometer. 3) Use pasteurized eggs, available in most supermarkets.  4) For eggnog, use a cooked eggnog recipe.


-DON’T leave frozen meat, poultry, fish, or seafood on the counter to defrost. Plan ahead and defrost your main course in the refrigerator, or use the microwave defrost setting.


-DON’T undercook ham. Both fresh hams and cook-before-eating hams should be placed in an oven set no lower than 325º and cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165ºF.  Packaged hams labeled “fully cooked” can be served cold or reheated to 140ºF.  An unpackaged cooked ham could be contaminated, so it should be cooked to 165ºF. 


-DON’T stuff your turkey (or goose). Most food safety experts advise against it.  Here’s one reason: the bird may reach the safe temperature while the stuffing is still at a lower temperature, one at which  bacteria can thrive.   If you are determined to stuff, take these precautions: 1) Let the stuffing cool before inserting it into the raw bird.  2) Take the temperature of the stuffing (as well as the bird). Don’t assume the stuffing is hot enough when the bird is. Both should be  at least 165°F.


-DON’T depend on a pop-up thermometer to tell you that your poultry is safe to eat. A pop-up thermometer doesn’t go deep enough into the bird. Use a meat thermometer with a probe about 6 inches long. Take the temperature of the bird in three places: the innermost part of the thigh, the wing, and the thickest part of the breast. Don’t assume poultry is safe to eat when the meat no longer looks red and the juices are clear. Trust only the thermometer. 


-DON’T wash raw fruits and vegetables before refrigerating or storing them in a cabinet or on the counter.  That encourages mold growth. However, be sure to wash them well  just before serving or cooking.  (Rinse under cool water.) Even if the outside of  a fruit or vegetable is not going to be consumed, it should still be rinsed off to remove dirt and other contaminants. Otherwise, these may sneak into the interior flesh when the unpeeled fruit or vegetable is cut.


-DON’T put a big chunk of warm leftovers into the fridge. Divide leftovers (meat, pasta, casseroles, etc.) into smaller packages, and place them in shallow dishes. Cover them loosely until cool to allow air to circulate around the food. In the fridge, don’t pile one warm container on top of another. Place them side by side with space in between. Stored that way, the food will cool faster and be in the “danger zone” for a shorter period of time.


-DON’T reheat the same leftovers more than once. Every time a perishable food goes through the 40°F-140°F “danger zone,” pathogens have an opportunity to grow. Remember, a reheated item has been through that danger zone twice, once when cooling down in the fridge and once while being reheated. Uneaten reheated leftovers should be fed to the garbage.


-DON’T keep refrigerated leftovers more than 3 days. That’s the general rule, and it should be followed with all foods containing animal products. Some vegetables—especially beans, sweet potatoes, and corn—will last a few days longer.


-DON’T wrap leftover raw vegetables tightly. Leave some airspace around them. Air prevents the development of spores that can cause botulism. 


-DON’T save frozen leftovers forever. Food that’s safe to eat when it goes into the freezer will be safe when it’s removed no matter how long it was frozen. However, after 2-6 months (the length of time depends upon the type of food and how it was wrapped), it probably won’t taste very good. Before freezing, wrap food  tightly in plastic material designed for freezing. Label it—type of food and date frozen—so you’ll know when to use it before freezer burn ruins the  taste and/or texture.  

NOTE: For more information on handling ham and turkey, see this site’s product write-ups on each. 


Utah State University Extension “Food Safety” or

Virginia Cooperative Extension
“Hosts need to be sure buffet-style meals follow food safety recommendations”

Clemson Cooperative Extension  “Food Safety for Community Suppers”–safety/handling/hgic3544.html

USDA Fact Sheets  “Let’s Talk Turkey—A Consumer Guide to Safely Roasting A Turkey”


USDA Fact Sheets "Ham and Food Safety"

Susan Brewer, Ph.D.  University of Illinois, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition


Utah State University Extension “Food Safety” or

Virginia Cooperative Extension
“Hosts need to be sure buffet-style meals follow food safety recommendations”


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