Beat the Buffet Blues

Reviewed by Eleese Cunningham, RDN


Buffet and potluck-style gatherings are a convenient alternative to the traditional sit-down dinner. However, when hosting, make sure guests leave without a case of the buffet blues, otherwise known as food poisoning. It is important to take extra care when hosting in this fashion because foods often sit out for long periods of time while guests snack and socialize.

Be the Host with the Most by Following this Food Safety Checklist

Lists of all types from guest to grocery help keep you organized. Yet one of the most important lists usually goes unwritten, a food safety checklist. These helpful tips will ensure potluck and buffet meals not only taste good, but are safe for your guests to enjoy:

  1. Cleanliness is key. Wash your hands before and after handling food. Serve food on clean plates and replace serving plates often. Make sure the juices from raw meat, poultry and seafood don't come into contact with cooked and ready-to-eat foods, as this can result in cross-contamination.
  2. Keep cold dishes cold and hot dishes hot. This also means reminding guests to safely transport their dishes to the party. Pack cold food items in plenty of ice in a well-insulated cooler or other container with cooling packs. In cold weather, transport the cooler in the trunk, which is the coolest part of the car in the wintertime. In warm weather, transport the cooler in an air-conditioned car instead of in a hot trunk. And for hot items, pack them in a well-insulated container and place them in the warmest part of your car. When you arrive, make sure to reheat foods to a safe internal temperature of 165°F.
  3. Always use a food thermometer to check the doneness of cooked foods. Consult the Is It Done Yet? feature on the Is My Food Safe? app for proper internal food temperatures and the video on How to Use a Food Thermometer.
  4. Remember the two-hour rule. Food can grow harmful bacteria quickly when left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. To help avoid this buffet blunder and keep food out of the danger zone, set a kitchen timer as a reminder to place uneaten food back in the refrigerator and to refresh your buffet table with new favorites every two hours. If guests are bringing food, keep in mind that the clock starts ticking when they walk out their door to come over.
  5. Store foods in shallow containers to refrigerate or freeze them. This promotes rapid, even cooling.

Don't Let These Bacteria Crash Your Get-Together

Bacteria are everywhere but be extra cautious of these specific bacteria that frequent people's hands and buffet tables: Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Listeria monocytogenes.

  1. Staphylococcus aureus
    Staphylococcus ("staph") bacteria are found on our skin, in infected cuts and in our noses and throats. They are spread by improper food handling. Prevention includes washing hands and utensils before preparing and handling food and not letting prepared foods — particularly cured meats and salads such as ham, egg, tuna, chicken, potato and pasta — sit at room temperature for more than two hours. 
  2. Clostridium perfringens
    C. perfringens is often called the "buffet germ" because it may be found in foods served in large quantities and left at room temperature for long periods of time. Divide large portions of cooked foods such as beef, turkey, gravy, dressing, stews and casseroles into smaller portions for serving and cooling to prevent C. perfringens. In addition, keep hot foods hot (above 140°F) and cold foods cold (below 40°F), never lukewarm because this is the danger zone for foods.
  3. Listeria monocytogenes
    Listeria bacteria can multiply, although slowly, at refrigeration temperatures, so these bacteria can be found in cold foods typically served on buffet tables. To avoid serving foods containing Listeria, keep foods refrigerated and carefully observe "sell by" and "use by" dates on processed products. Also, thoroughly reheat frozen or refrigerated processed meat and poultry products such as hot dogs and deli meat before consumption.

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