KANSAS CITY, Mo.– Food is a great way to bring people together. But if you’re mainly used to cooking everyday family meals or for the occasional dinner party, you’ll want to be aware of extra safety precautions to take when cooking for large groups.
“Unfortunately, there have been cases of foodborne illness linked to events such as church suppers and school fundraisers,” said Londa Nwadike, extension consumer food safety specialist for the University of Missouri and Kansas State University.
“Often these events are staffed by volunteers, so you want to do all you can to encourage them to practice things safely to make sure no one is going to get sick,” she said.
When feeding a large number of people, food safety begins even before you head to the grocery store and doesn’t end until cleanup is done and leftovers are put away.
“If you’re buying large quantities of perishable foods like meats or cheeses, make sure you have enough cold storage, both on the way home and once you get home,” Nwadike said. “Those of us in food safety have what we call a ‘temperature danger zone,’ 40 to 140 degrees (Fahrenheit). You don’t want perishable food to be in that range for more than two hours.”
When shopping, separate raw meats from the other products. “For example, put meat at the bottom of your cart, and put lettuce on top, so that meat juices aren’t dripping onto the lettuce,” she said. “It’s the same when you’re bagging groceries. Separate out raw meat from other products.”
After shopping, you’ll have more food than you might be used to and will need extra space to store it until preparation. “If you’re buying 20 turkeys, for example, make sure you have refrigerator or freezer storage space for them,” Nwadike said.
Don’t overfill your refrigerator, which needs some space to circulate cold air to work properly. Use a thermometer in your refrigerator to make sure the temperature in all areas is staying below 40 F.
“The thermometer is not the dial on the refrigerator, which helps you set the temperature,” she said. “You should have a thermometer in addition to that dial. They’re available in most stores inexpensively.”
Proper placement of food in the refrigerator is also important.
“Store raw meats in the bottom so they’re not dripping on anything else,” Nwadike said. “Poultry should be on the bottom shelf, because it needs to be cooked to the highest temperature. Ground meats can be stored on top of poultry, and then whole cuts, like roasts, can be stored on top of those. If you have any ready-to-eat foods such as lettuce, tomatoes and cheeses, store those on the top shelves.”
Unlike refrigerators, freezers tend to work more efficiently when they’re fuller. But overfilling the freezer can cause other problems.
“With any freezer that’s too full, sometimes the door doesn’t close properly,” she said. “Food could thaw out, and your freezer will be working too hard to try to keep it cold.” Use a thermometer in the freezer to make sure it is keeping food at zero degrees F.
Don’t put nonperishable foods, including canned foods, directly on the floor, which could be dirty or have contact with mice or insects. Store these foods on a rack or on shelves.
Proper storage extends to having enough food-grade containers to hold the cooked food while serving.
“You can’t just use a garbage can, garbage bags, a 5-gallon bucket or whatever container you can find,” Nwadike said. “Use food-grade containers to make sure you won’t get any chemical or microbial contamination in the prepared foods.”
Many cases of foodborne illness are linked to improper cooking or cooling, Nwadike said. When cooking meat for large groups, allow plenty of time to thaw the meat and cook it all the way through.
Don’t thaw meat on the counter or in the sink in hot water. These methods allow the outside of the product to thaw more quickly than the inside, meaning the outside may be well above 40 F while the inside is still frozen. Thawing slowly in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave are the safest ways.
“Whenever you’re cooking meat, whether it’s just for your family or for a crowd, use your food thermometer,” Nwadike said. “Poultry should be heated to at least 165 F, ground meats to 160 F, and whole-muscle cuts such as chops, steaks or roasts to 145 F with a three-minute rest time.”
When storing cooked food, make sure to cool the food quickly, she said. Get the food in the refrigerator within two hours and the internal temperature of the food below 40 degrees in less than four hours.
Rather than putting hot food directly in the refrigerator, take a pot of food or the inside of a slow cooker and put it into a bath of ice water in your sink. Stirring the food to transfer the heat out will help it cool faster. You can also put large quantities of food in shallower pans, or divide food into smaller amounts to cool.
If you’ve cooked a large amount of food at home and need to transport it somewhere else for serving, plan how you will keep the food out of the temperature danger zone.
“You need a way to keep it hot, such as wrapping it in blankets, or putting it in an insulated cooler to keep it hot or cold,” Nwadike said. “If you need to reheat it before serving, get it nice and hot to 165 F first, and then you can maintain it at 140 F. This kills off any bacteria that could be there from transport.”
Slow cookers aren’t for reheating food, she added. Reheat cold food in the microwave, on the stove or in the oven. Slow cookers, however, are useful for holding foods at 140 F.
“Any time you’re preparing food, make sure you are washing your hands properly,” Nwadike said. “If you’re serving food, it’s a good idea to wear gloves. But even if you’re using gloves, you still need to wash your hands. Gloves are not a substitute for hand-washing.”
Using disposable dishes saves cleanup time, but you’ll still have many pots and pans that will need cleaning after the meal.
“When you have a large quantity of dishes, make sure you’re washing them properly,” Nwadike said. “If you have a commercial dishwasher available, that’s probably the best option. If you’re using sinks, clean your sink first so there’s no residue or germs in the sink. Then scrape leftover food from the dirty dishes, wash, rinse, sanitize and let them air-dry.”
You should also thoroughly wash and sanitize countertops and utensils, particularly after handling raw meat.
In a unique joint appointment between Kansas State University and the University of Missouri, Londa Nwadike serves as state extension consumer food safety specialist for both Kansas and Missouri. She works with extension specialists and other stakeholders in both states to develop programming and resources in food safety, focusing on consumer issues.