Food Safety for Buffets and Parties

food trays in a buffet line

Gathering friends and family is fun, but beware of uninvited party guests. Foodborne germs can crash your buffet and make people sick with food poisoning. When cooking, preparing, or serving food for large groups, it’s important to keep food safe.

Follow these steps to keep foodborne germs from spoiling your party.

Keep It Clean

  • Wash your hands with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds before preparing, eating, or handling food. Wash your hands after using the bathroom and touching pets.
  • Wash your cutting boardsexternal icon, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item.

Separate Raw Meat From Other Foods

  • Separateexternal icon raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from foods that won’t be cooked before eating, such as fruit, salad greens, deli salads, and bread.
    • Use separate cutting boards, plates, and knives for fresh fruits and vegetables and for raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs.
    • Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from other foods when shopping for groceries and when storing in the refrigerator.
Taking temperature of foods

Use a food thermometer to be sure foods are cooked to the right temperature.

Cook to a Safe Temperature

  • Use a food thermometer to make sure foods are cooked to a temperature hot enough to kill germs that could make you sick. Check this chart for recommended temperaturesexternal icon.
  • Follow recommended microwave cooking and standing timesexternal icon.
    • Cold spots—areas that are not completely cooked—can provide a hiding place for germs. For this reason, always follow cooking instructions and directions for standing time—the extra minutes food should rest to finish cooking.


Germs that can make you sick grow quickly when food is lukewarm, between 40°F and 140°F. That’s why it’s important to keep cold foods cold (40°F and below), and hot foods hot (over 140°F).

Serve Foods Safely

  • If preparing food in advance, divide cooked food into shallow containersexternal icon and store in a refrigerator or freezer. This encourages rapid, even cooling.
  • Keep hot foodsexternal icon hot, at 140°F or warmer. Use slow cookers, chafing dishes, and warming trays to keep food hot on the buffet table.
  • Keep cold foods coldexternal icon, at 40°F or below. Use small serving trays and replace often with fresh platters from the refrigerator, or place serving dishes in bowls of ice so they stay chilled.
  • For picnics and other outdoor meals, keep cold food in a cooler filled with ice or frozen gel packs until just before serving. Catering or getting food delivered? Make sure food that is catered or delivered stays at a safe temperature.
store leftovers in smaller portions

Divide leftovers into smaller portions or pieces, place in shallow containers, and refrigerate or freeze.

The Two-Hour Rule

  • Throw away any perishable foods that have been out at room temperature for 2 hours or more.
  • Toss them after 1 hour if they’ve been sitting out at temperatures of 90°F or hotter, such as food served at a picnic or outdoor family reunion.

Store and Reheat Leftovers the Right Way

  • Divide leftovers into smaller portions or pieces, place in shallow containers, and refrigerate or freeze.
  • Leftover foods should be refrigerated at 40°F or below as soon as possible and within two hours of preparation. It’s OK to put hot foods directly into the refrigerator.
  • Leftovers should be reheated to at least 165°F before serving. This includes leftovers warmed up in the microwave.
  • Learn how long food can be stored safely in the refrigerator and freezerexternal icon.

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