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Party food safety tips

Dishes of food on a buffet table.

Get-togethers usually include food. Laying food out on a buffet table is a popular way to serve food at gatherings. But serving food this way can contribute to foodborne illnesses. To protect your guests from foodborne illnesses, follow these tips:

Keep hands, kitchen, dishes and utensils clean

  • Wash your hands constantly during preparation, serving and cleanup.
  • Keep your kitchen, dishes and utensils clean.
  • Be sure your serving dishes are clean.
  • Do not serve food on plates that previously held raw meat or poultry.

Cook food thoroughly

  • Cook roast beef, pork, veal and lamb to at least 145 degrees F for medium rare and 160 F for medium well done; let stand/rest for three minutes before serving.
  • Cook poultry to 165 F or higher.
  • Any foods created from ground meat or hamburger should be cooked to 160 F.
Recipes using ground meat or hamburger should be cooked to 160 F.

Serving tips

  • Serve foods in several small dishes or platters rather than on huge platters.
  • Keep the rest of the food in your oven (set at 200-250 F) or cold in the refrigerator until serving. This way, the foods will be kept at safe temperatures for a longer period of time.
  • Replace empty small platters with clean dishes rather than add fresh food to a dish that already had food in it. Remember: Many unwashed hands have been taking food from these dishes and the food has been sitting out at room temperature.

Two-hour Rule

Food should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours. Throw out anything left out for two hours or more.

Keep hot food hot and cold food cold

Keep hot foods at 140 F or warmer

  • Use chafing dishes, warming trays or slow cookers to keep hot foods hot on the buffet table.
  • Keep the covers on the hot food dishes to keep the heat inside the dish.

Keep cold food at 40 F or colder

  • Nest dishes in bowls of ice to keep foods cold.
  • Otherwise, use smaller serving platters and replace them often.

    Clean up after your party

    • Use soap and water to wash the countertops, tables and the refrigerator door handle (one of the dirtiest spots in a busy kitchen).
    • Follow up with a sanitizing solution (1 teaspoon bleach to 1 quart of water) after washing and rinsing off the suds. Spray solution on the clean surfaces and air-dry.

    Leftover food safety

    • Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of serving.
    • Throw out foods left on your buffet table longer than two hours.
    • Eat your leftovers within three to four days.
    • Freeze foods for longer storage.
    • Reheat leftovers to 165 F.
    • When reheating in the microwave: 
      • Use a food thermometer to ensure food is reheated enough to kill bacteria. 
      • Let heated, covered food sit for two minutes before eating to let the heat distribute throughout. Microwave ovens heat unevenly.


    Carol Ann Burtness, Extension educator and Suzanne Driessen, Extension educator

    Reviewed in 2021

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