Amy Simonne, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Food Safety and Quality
Potluck parties are very popular during the holiday season. People like potluck parties because they reduce the burden of cooking and food preparation for everyone. However, before you share your favorite dishes, take a little time to learn and practice basic food safety. Different foods need to be handled and cooked differently, and it is important for you to equip yourself with the latest recommendations.
In short, food safety is about common sense. First, it is very important to be clean from the start; this should include having good personal hygiene and keeping food preparation surfaces and equipment clean. Separate raw foods from cooked or ready-to-eat foods, cook foods to the minimum safe internal temperature (using food thermometers), and cool and store foods properly. Remember the four major principles: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill. Additional information about safe food preparation can be found in many publications for consumers.
If you are already well versed in food safety during food preparation, read on to learn more about some of the specific issues related to potluck parties.
Should you bring food to this potluck party?
Do not prepare food for a potluck party if someone in your home has been experiencing diarrhea, vomiting, or fever within the past week. You could pass their sickness on to others at the party through your food!
Do you have the means to keep your food safe?
If you plan to bring foods that need temperature control (formally called "potentially hazardous foods," or PHF), you need a way to keep those foods at a safe temperature, such as a cooler for cold foods or an insulated container for hot foods.
If a PHF is in the temperature danger zone (40°F - 140°F) for 2 hours or more, it should be thrown away. The bottom line is that if you cannot keep hot foods hot or cold foods cold during transportation and serving time, you should bring foods that do not require temperature control.
Will there be hand-washing facilities at the party?
If there is no place for people to wash their hands, you should take foods that can be eaten with utensils or that don't need to be handled.
Are people going to touch the food with bare hands?
Increased handling of foods increases the chances of spreading foodborne illness. If you do not provide a utensil with each potluck item, people will be likely to touch the food with bare hands. Provide people with long-handled utensils that will not be buried in the food, or other "barriers," such as napkins, wrappers, or tissues.
Are you going to be preparing cold salads from cooked ingredients, such as potato salad?
Cold salads with cooked ingredients, such as potato, ham, or pasta salads, need special attention from the beginning. It is very important to minimize how much these salads are handled with bare hands after the ingredients are cooked. It is also very important to cool the ingredients down before mixing them together. After they are mixed, they should be kept cool (at 40° F or lower) at all times. If you cannot keep the salad at that temperature, it should be discarded after the party.
What about leftovers?
If food has been handled properly during preparation and serving and has not spent more than two hours in the temperature danger zone (40°F - 140°F), it is possible to reuse it. However, you need to follow food safety guidelines regarding storage and reheating.
If you have additional questions, seek professional help at your local Extension Office; they will be able to give you more information.