Food Safety for Group Cooking

A popular way to celebrate the holidays or any party occasion is to cook a lot of food and invite friends and family. However, this type of food service – where foods are left out for long periods – leaves the door open for uninvited guests – bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Festive times for giving and sharing should not include sharing foodborne illness.

When preparing for your special event, remember that there may be an invisible enemy ready to strike. It’s called BAC (bacteria) and it can make you sick. This problem is more serious than many people realize. In fact, one in six Americans will get sick from food poisoning this year alone.

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Food Safety Steps

Good hygiene and cooking foods thoroughly are the best and easiest ways to avoid food illness. To prevent food illness it is recommended to:

  • Always clean your hands, utensils and food surfaces before using them;
  • Separate foods and avoid cross-contamination. Never store raw foods next to ready-to-eat foods;
  • Cook foods to a safe temperature. Check them using a food thermometer:
    • ground meats: 160°F
    • fresh beef, veal, and lamb: 145°F (let stand 3 minutes)
    • poultry: 165°F
    • pork and ham: 145°F (let stand 3 minutes)
    • egg dishes: 160°F, cook eggs until whites are firm
    • leftover dishes and casseroles: 165°F
    • fish: 145°F or flesh can come apart with a fork
    • shellfish: cook until shells open on their own
  • Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods within two hours since purchase or preparation;
  • Defrost food safely in the refrigerator;
  • Make sure to dispose of food if you are unsure of its safety.

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Bacteria “Danger Zone”

Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 °F and 140 °F. To keep food out of this temperature “Danger Zone,” keep cold food cold and hot food hot.

  • Keep food cold in the refrigerator, in coolers, or on the serving line on ice.
  • Keep hot food in the oven, in heated chafing dishes, or in preheated steam tables, warming trays and/or slow cookers.

Refrigerate Leftovers (2hrs)

One of the critical factors in controlling bacteria in food is controlling temperature. Bacteria grows very slowly at temperatures below 40 °F, multiply rapidly between 40 °F and 140 °F, and are destroyed at temperatures above 140 °F.

Bacteria starts to multiply on food at 2 hours – when left at the 40 °F and 140 °F temperature zone – therefore, this is when you should store leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer.

Never leave perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs and casseroles in the “Danger Zone” over 2 hours; 1 hour in temperatures above 90 °F.

Leftovers will last for 4 days in the refrigerator, so if you know you won’t use them right away, pack them into freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze. For best quality, use your leftover frozen turkey within four months.

USDA Brochure – Cooking for Groups

This brochure helps volunteers prepare and serve food safely for large groups such as family reunions, church dinners, and community gatherings. This food may be prepared at the volunteer’s home and brought to the event, or prepared and served at the gathering.

The information provided in this publication was developed as a guide for consumers who are preparing food for large groups. For additional information, and to ensure that all state regulations or recommendations for food preparation and service are followed, please contact your local or state health department.

Additional Resources – Cooking for Groups Food Safety