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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Handling food safely helps ensure good time during holiday meals

STILLWATER, Okla. – Families and friends will soon be gathering around elaborate meals to celebrate the holidays. No matter the time of year or occasion, though, hosts should keep food safety in mind while laying out the spread.

“Making sure you’re handling food safely won’t keep you from being creative and fun, but it will help prevent foodborne illness,” said Barbara Brown, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension food specialist.

Foodborne-illness-causing bacteria can multiply or produce enough toxins to make someone sick in just two hours at room temperature. If that temperature is 90 F or more, the time limit is sliced to just one hour.

That puts a premium on keeping hot foods heated and cold foods chilled to internal temperatures of 140 F or warmer and 40 F or colder, respectively.

One strategy for successfully achieving that goal is to set out smaller portions, especially if you are not sure how fast the food will disappear.

“You can prepare some dishes ahead of time and then just refresh them throughout the meal or gathering,” Brown said. “Put the backup dishes for cold foods in the refrigerator and keep dishes for hot foods in the oven set at 200 F to 250 F.”

To help keep hot foods at the correct temperature, hosts can rely on chafing dishes, slow cookers and warming trays.

“You can monitor the temperature using a food thermometer,” Brown said. “If you’re using a warming dish, know that some only hold food up to 110 F to 120 F instead of the required 140 F. You can check the product information for details.”

When it comes to cold foods, keep those items in the refrigerator until it is time for them to be served. If you believe those dishes will set out more than two hours, place them on ice to maintain the cold.

Also, as you are replenishing items – hot or cold – throughout the meal, always use a fresh dish and serving utensil rather than simply filling up the emptied one.

“Bacteria from your guests’ hands could contaminate the food, and bacteria multiplies rapidly at room temperature,” Brown said. “So using the fresh dishes each time you refill items helps cut down on risk of exposing your guests to potentially dangerous bacteria.”

Finally, remember the two-hour rule for leaving foods at room temperature also applies to leftovers and “doggie bags.”

“Store any leftovers in the refrigerator immediately,” Brown said. “Any guests who want to take home food from the meal, but who are traveling more than a couple hours, should plan ahead and bring a small cooler and a cold source.”


Oklahoma State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, State and Local Governments Cooperating: The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, or status as a veteran, and is an equal opportunity employer.


Leilana McKindra
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
140 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-6792
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078