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hooray for the buffet food safety

Buffets – where foods are often left out at room temperature for several hours – leave the door open for uninvited guests: bacteria that cause foodborne illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foods prepared in the home cause thousands of foodborne illnesses yearly in America.

The top two causes are:

  • Leaving food out at an unsafe temperature
  • Not cooking food to high enough temperatures to destroy bacteria

Keep Hot Food Hot and Cold Food Cold

Keep hot food at 140°F or higher.

To keep bacteria from growing, it’s important to keep hot food at 140°F or above. After cooking or reheating foods, keep them hot in an oven set at 200° to 250°F. For serving, a chafing dish, food warmer, slow cooker, or electric warming tray can keep hot food hot. Do not reheat food in a slow cooker. However, once reheated to 165°F, foods can be transferred to the slow cooker and kept hot.

fruit cups on ice

Keep cold food at 40°F or colder.

Cold food should be held at 40°F or colder. Nest cold dishes in bowls of ice. It’s best to arrange and serve cold food on several small platters rather than on one large platter. Keep them refrigerated until serving time. Replace empty platters; don’t add fresh food to a dish that already had food in it.

Cold food can be out of the refrigerator a maximum of 2 hours. After that, the food will be in the “Danger Zone” – temperatures between 40°F and 140°F where bacteria thrive and grow. Discard any food left at room temperature more than 2 hours (1 hour when the temperature is above 90°F).

Spiral-Cut Hams
Spiral-cut hams are best served cold. However, if you wish to reheat one, cover the entire ham or portion with heavy aluminum foil and heat at 325°F for about 10 minutes per pound.

Use a food thermometer to ensure the ham reaches 165°F – a temperature high enough to destroy any bacteria that may be present in a fully cooked, pre-sliced ham.

spiral cut ham on buffet table

The Always-Popular Meatballs

Whether you make homemade meatballs ahead of time or purchase them from the freezer case, it’s important to reheat them to 165°F before serving – and keep them hot.

When making homemade meatballs, it’s best not to store raw egg-meat mixtures in the refrigerator.

As soon as you mix and form the meatballs, cook them until they reach 160°F. If not using them right away, cool them in a single layer and refrigerate in shallow containers. Reheat and use the cooked meatballs within 4 days. Leftovers may be frozen.

Safe Handling of Buffet Foods

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends these practices to keep all hot and cold buffet foods safe:

Keep Everything Clean
  • Wash your hands with warm soapy water before and after handling food.
  • Keep your kitchen, dishes and utensils clean.
  • Always serve food on clean plates – not those previously holding raw meat and poultry. Otherwise, bacteria which may have been present in raw meat juices can cross-contaminate the food to be served.
  • Cook home-prepared foods thoroughly.

Cook foods to safe minimum internal temperatures as measured with a food thermometer.
  • Beef, veal and lamb steaks, roasts and chops may be cooked to 145°F.
  • All cuts of fresh pork to 160°F.
  • Ground beef, veal and lamb to 160°F.
  • All poultry should reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F.

Chill Promptly
  • Divide cooked foods into shallow containers for rapid cooling.
  • Store these foods in the refrigerator or freezer until serving.

Handle Frozen Convenience Foods Safely
  • Follow handling and cooking instructions on frozen convenience foods.
  • Thaw foods in the refrigerator, not out on the counter.
  • Before serving cooked foods intended to be served hot, reheat them to 165°F.

Handle Take-Out Foods Safely
  • Refrigerate cold perishable foods as soon as possible, always within 2 hours after purchase or delivery. If the food is in air temperatures above 90°F, refrigerate within 1 hour.
  • When picking up hot take-out foods such as fried or rotisserie chicken, transport the food to the buffet location and keep it hot.
  • If you plan to eat at a later time, take-out or delivered food should be divided into smaller portions or pieces, placed in shallow containers, and refrigerated.

The “Two-Hour” Rule

2 hour rule for food safety at your Christmas buffet

Bacteria grows rapidly in the “Danger Zone” – temperatures between 40°F (refrigerator temperature) and 140°F (the minimum for holding hot food).

  • Foods should not sit at room temperature for more than 2 hours (1 hour when the temperature is above 90°F).
  • Keep track of how long foods have been sitting on the buffet table and discard anything there 2 hours or more.
  • Leftovers from safely handled dishes should be refrigerated and used within 4 days. Frozen cooked leftovers will taste best if used within 3 months but are safe indefinitely.


Following the USDA’s recommendations will keep your bountiful buffet safe for guests.

If you have food safety questions, contact “Ask Karen,” the FSIS virtual representative available 24 hours a day at or call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) – it is available in English and Spanish from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day. For additional information, go to


When you’re pulling a great party together there are so many details that it’s easy for something to slip, so take just a few seconds before your party to review these buffet food safety rules. It would be a shame to have a foodborne illness ruin the party that you worked so hard to prepare. . .

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