Beat the Buffet Blues

Contributors: Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN


Buffet and potluck-style gatherings are a convenient alternative to the traditional sit-down dinner. However, it’s important to take extra care when hosting because foods often sit out for long periods of time while guests snack and socialize, putting them at risk of the buffet blues — otherwise known as food poisoning.

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

Lists help keep you organized, such as those for guests and groceries, yet one of the most important lists usually goes unwritten, a food safety checklist. These tips will help keep potluck and buffet meals tasting good as well as safe for your guests to enjoy:

  • Keep it clean. Wash your hands before and after handling food. Serve food on clean plates and replace serving plates with clean ones when replenishing items. 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.
  • Monitor temperatures. 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 with 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. For hot items, pack 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.
  • Always use a food thermometer to check the doneness of cooked foods. The only way to tell if a food is cooked to a safe level of doneness is by using a food thermometer. Make sure your food reaches a safe internal temperature before you serve it.
  • Follow the two-hour rule. Food can grow harmful bacteria quickly when left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. If the temperature is warm (above 90 degrees), then the time limit is just one hour. 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 one to two hours. Any food left out beyond that time frame should be discarded. If guests are bringing food, keep in mind that the clock starts ticking when they walk out their door to come over.
  • 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 is everywhere and can pass easily from hands to food. Keep Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Listeria monocytogenes, away from your buffets.

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. One hour if it’s warmer than 90 degrees.

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 reduce risk of 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.

Listeria monocytogenes
Listeria bacteria can continue to multiply during refrigeration, which puts foods typically served cold at risk. Some foods that are already cooked, such as hot dogs and deli meat should be reheated to 165°F before serving to individuals who are at high risk for foodborne illness. Stick with pasteurized dairy and milk products and keep the raw sprouts off the table.

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