Entertaining at home

Entertaining guests can be great fun, but the last thing we want is to give our guests a case of food poisoning. There are a few reasons why a party can mean a greater risk of food poisoning, including:

  • the average home kitchen is not designed for cooking for a lot of people
  • guests often bring food to share, which means food can be out of the fridge for several hours, enough time for bacteria to multiply
  • many people start preparing food well ahead of an event. For some non-perishable items, such as a Christmas cake, that’s fine. But other foods, such as casseroles or desserts, need to be carefully prepared and then chilled or frozen quickly.

Follow the tips below to avoid giving your friends and family food poisoning.

Avoid temperature abuse

Temperature abuse is the major cause of foodborne illness at parties and functions. Remember to minimise the time food stays in the temperature danger zone (5°C to 60°C). Learn more about the Temperature danger zone.

Keep hot food hot – use the top of the stove or an oven turned down to just below 100°C. If you want to serve food at less than 60°C, make sure it doesn’t stay at that temperature for more than four hours.

Keep cold food cold – if you prepare food ahead of time, and cool it in the fridge, make sure that the fridge is still operating at or below 5°C even though you’ve loaded it with extra food. Learn more about Fridge and freezer food safety.

Cool food quickly – once the steam stops rising, cover the food and put it in the fridge. You want it to cool as quickly as possible so that spores, which can survive cooking, don’t germinate. You can hasten the cooling process by pre-cooling the hot food in its container in a sink of iced or cold water or putting it into shallow containers and chilling or freezing the food in those. In deep containers it can take days for the centre of the food to reach 5 °C.

Thaw any frozen food correctly in the fridge allowing sufficient time to thaw completely (usually the day before) or in the microwave on the day of the party. Reheat food fast either on top of the stove, in the oven or in a microwave. Remember those spores are always looking for windows of opportunity to germinate and those germinate cells will grow and make your guests sick.

The fridge

Domestic fridges are not very large and an overcrowded fridge or freezer does not allow the cold air to circulate freely around the food to keep them adequately frozen or chilled. When the fridge contains a large load of food, it has to work overtime to cope and, particularly if the weather is hot, the temperature inside will rise.

You should have a fridge thermometer inside the fridge so you can check that your fridge is operating at the correct temperature (at or under 5 °C). At these temperatures food poisoning bacteria will multiply very slowly and the food will remain safe for two or three days. Check your fridge temperature regularly, after any newly refrigerated food has had a chance to cool, and adjust the controls to lower the temperature if necessary.

Make sure that raw meat and poultry can’t contaminate ready to eat food. Raw food can contain food poisoning bacteria. This is not a problem if the food is cooked before it is eaten. However, if these bacteria get onto ready to eat food, such as salads, desserts or foods that have already been cooked, they can cause food poisoning.

You inevitably will run out of space to allow you to do this properly, particularly if your guests are also bringing food which needs to be refrigerated until you are ready to eat, so what should you do?

  • Take out the beer. Drinks can’t make you sick if they are inadequately cooled but food can. Fill the laundry sink and insulated containers or buckets with ice to keep beer and soft drinks chilled.
  • Ground coffee doesn’t need to be refrigerated just stored in an airtight jar.
  • Whole fruit can survive in the fruit bowl or cupboard, as can whole raw vegetables.
  • Those jars of pickles, chutneys and bottled sauces that have vinegar on the label can come out too because they won’t be a problem outside the fridge for a couple of days.
  • If you still don’t have enough room, make sure the things that are eaten later are in the fridge and leave out the things you will eat first.

Remember the temperature danger zone – these foods can stay out of the fridge for up to four hours in total but must be thrown out after that.

Keep these items at high risk of food poisoning bugs in the fridge:

  • cooked meats, deli meats, patés etc. should be left in the fridge until you are ready to eat them
  • salads – especially cooked vegetable, pasta or rice salads (whether they contain meat or not)
  • ready to eat seafood
  • dips and other ready to eat foods
  • cream, egg and custard based desserts
  • any dish containing raw or minimally cooked eggs, such as home made mayonnaise or sauces.

Preparing and cooking the food

Because of the risks in catering for a large group, you need to be even more careful than usual about preparing food to prevent any bacteria being introduced by cross contamination.

Wash your hands before you start preparing and between preparing raw and ready to eat foods – learn about Handwashing. Wash chopping boards, knives and anything else which will come into contact with the food between preparing raw and ready to eat foods.

Cook poultry, minced meats, sausages, tenderised meats and other pre-prepared meats until they reach 75°C in the centre using a meat thermometer. No pink should be visible. Steaks and other solid pieces of meat can be cooked to your preference eg rare or medium rare – if you use a meat thermometer it will help you cook the perfect piece of meat.

Do not allow cooked meals to cool on the bench. As soon as steam stops rising, refrigerate or freeze in a leak-proof container.

Don’t prepare food if you have vomiting or diarrhoea (gastroenteritis) – you’ll be sure to pass it on to your family and friends.

Don’t leave perishable nibbles, like dips and soft cheeses, out in the temperature danger zone for too long. It is better to divide them into small amounts and replenish with fresh portions as required. This also makes them look more appetising. Don’t mix fresh top-ups with ones that have been outside for some time. Low risk foods, such nuts, crisps, crackers, etc. can be topped up every hour or so.

Bringing food or taking home leftovers

If you are transporting food to the event use insulated containers with lots of ice-bricks, gel packs or frozen water bottles to keep the food chilled. Chill the food well before taking it out of the fridge to pack. Don’t pack food with other chilled food if it has just been cooked and is still warm – transport it in another insulated container to keep it warm. Cover all ready to eat food securely. Pack any raw meat or poultry in a sealed container at the bottom of the insulated container (to avoid any juices dripping onto other food).

If you want to bring home any leftovers, ask your hosts to put your ice-bricks, gel packs or water bottles into the freezer during the party so that you can transport the leftovers home safely chilled. Put leftovers into the fridge as soon as you get home.