Cooking for Groups: A Volunteer's Guide to Food Safety

This text-only version of Cooking for Groups has been optimized for accessibility. The illustrated PDF version is recommended for printing.

Introduction
This brochure was developed to help volunteers prepare and serve food safely for large groups such as family reunions, church dinners, and community gatherings. This food may be prepared at the volunteer's home and brought to the event, or prepared and served at the gathering.

The information provided in this publication was developed as a guide for consumers who are preparing food for large groups.

For additional information, and to ensure that all state regulations or recommendations for food preparation and service are followed, please contact your local or state health department.

Food service personnel should be aware that this guide was prepared for consumer use only. The information provided in this guide does not reflect recommendations in the FDA Food Code, or your state's food code. Food service personnel should contact their local or state health department for information on the rules and regulations governing the preparation of food in retail or institutional settings.

Food that is mishandled can cause very serious consequences for all, especially for "at-risk" groups—infants, young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems. For this reason it is important that volunteers be especially careful when preparing and serving food to large groups.

Foodborne Illness: What You Need To Know

What Is Foodborne Illness?
Foodborne illness, or food poisoning, often presents itself as flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, so many people may not recognize that the illness may be caused by bacteria or other pathogens in food.

Thousands of types of bacteria are naturally present in our environment. Not all bacteria cause disease in humans. For example, some bacteria are used beneficially in making cheese and yogurt.

Bacteria that cause disease are called pathogens. When certain pathogens enter the food supply, they can cause foodborne illness. Millions of cases of foodborne illness occur each year and most can be prevented. Proper cooking or processing of food destroys bacteria.

Age and physical condition place some persons at higher risk than others, no matter what type of bacteria is implicated. Infants and young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, and older adults are at higher risk for foodborne illness, as are people with weakened immune systems (such as those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and transplant patients). Some persons may become ill after ingesting only a few harmful bacteria; others may remain symptom free after ingesting thousands.

How Bacteria Get in Food
Bacteria may be present on products when you purchase them. Plastic-wrapped boneless chicken and ground meat, for example, were once part of live chickens or cattle. Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs are not sterile. Neither is fresh produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, and melons.

Foods, including safely cooked, ready-to-eat foods, can become cross-contaminated with bacteria transferred from raw products, meat juices or other contaminated products, or from food handlers with poor personal hygiene.

In Case of Suspected Foodborne Illness
Follow these general guidelines:
  • Preserve the evidence. If a portion of the suspect food is available, wrap it securely, mark "DANGER," and freeze it. Save all the packaging materials, such as cans or cartons. Write down the food type, the date, other identifying marks on the package, the time consumed, and when the onset of symptoms occurred. Save any identical unopened products.
  • Seek treatment as necessary. If the victim is in an "at-risk" group, seek medical care immediately. Likewise, if symptoms persist or are severe (such as bloody diarrhea, excessive nausea and vomiting, or high temperature), call your doctor.
  • Call the local health department if the suspect food was served at a large gathering, from a restaurant or other foodservice facility, or if it is a commercial product.
  • Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline if the suspect food is a USDA-inspected product at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). Also contact "Ask Karen," FSIS' virtual representative, at AskKaren.gov (available in English and Spanish).

Food Safe Families — Check Your Steps

When preparing for your special event, remember that there may be an invisible enemy ready to strike. It's called BAC (bacteria) and it can make you sick. Th is problem is more serious than many people realize. In fact, one in six Americans will get sick from food poisoning this year alone. But by following four simple steps, you can protect your families and friends and keep your food safe.
  • Clean—Wash hands and surfaces often.
  • Separate—Separate raw meats from other foods.
  • Cook—Cook to the right temperature.
  • Chill—Refrigerate food promptly.

Food Safe Families is a consumer education campaign created to promote safe food handling as a way to help reduce the number of cases of foodborne illness—a serious but often unrecognized public health issue.

You can check your steps and learn more about Food Safe Families at foodsafety.gov.

When You Plan

Select a reliable person to be in charge. The person-in-charge should contact the local health department for information about the rules and regulations governing preparation and serving of food for groups. The person-in-charge should provide instructions to the volunteers, answer questions, and oversee the preparation, service, and cleanup of the event.

Make sure you have the right equipment, including cutting boards, utensils, food thermometers, cookware, shallow containers for storage, soap, and paper towels.

For outdoor events, make sure you have a source of clean water. If none is available at the site, bring water for cleaning of hands, utensils, and food thermometers. Develop a plan for transporting equipment for cleanup after the event.

Plan ahead to ensure that there will be adequate storage space in the refrigerator and freezer.

When You Shop

Do not purchase canned goods that are dented, leaking, bulging, or rusted. These are the warning signs that dangerous bacteria may be growing in the can.

Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart and in your refrigerator.

Buy cold foods last. Plan to drive directly home from the grocery store. You may want to take a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs for perishables. Always refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours. Refrigerate within 1 hour when the temperature is above 90 °F.

When You Store Food

Make sure the temperature in the refrigerator is 40 °F or below and 0 °F or below in the freezer. Check these temperatures with an appliance thermometer.

Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods, and leftovers within 2 hours (1 hour when the temperature is above 90 °F) of shopping or preparing. Place raw meat, poultry, and seafood in containers in the refrigerator, to prevent their juices from dripping on other foods. Raw juices may contain harmful bacteria. Refer to the cold storage chart for recommended storage times in the refrigerator or freezer.

When You Prepare Food

Wash hands and surfaces oft en. Bacteria can be spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, and counter tops. To prevent this:
  • Wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food, and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.
  • Use paper towels or clean cloths to wipe up kitchen surfaces or spills. Wash cloths oft en in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot, soapy water aft er preparing each food item and before you go on to the next item. A solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water may be used to sanitize washed surfaces and utensils.

When cutting boards are used:
  • Always use a clean cutting board.
  • Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Once cutting boards become excessively worn or develop hard-to-clean grooves, you should replace them.

Never thaw food at room temperature. Thaw food:
  • In the refrigerator.
  • In the microwave, but cook the food immediately.

Food may also be thawed in cold water. Be sure that the sink or container that holds food is clean before submerging food.

Two methods may be used when thawing:
  • Completely submerge airtight wrapped package. Change water every 30 minutes.
  • Completely submerge airtight wrapped food in constantly running cold water.

Cook food immediately after thawing.

Marinades may be used to tenderize or add flavor to food. When using marinades:
  • Always marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
  • Use food-grade plastic, stainless steel, or glass containers to marinate food.
  • Sauce that is used to marinate raw meat, poultry, fish or seafood should not be used on cooked foods, unless it is boiled before applying.
  • Never reuse marinades for other foods unless you boil them first. (see chart)

Discard any leftover batter, or breading, after it has come in contact with raw food.

It is recommended that you cook stuffing in a casserole. If stuffing poultry, stuff just before roasting and use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the stuffing. The stuffing must reach 165 °F.

Rinse all fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water before use. Thick-skinned produce may be scrubbed with a brush. Do not use soap.

Food should not be tasted until it reaches a safe minimum internal temperature. Refer to internal cooking temperature chart for the recommended safe temperatures. Use a clean utensil each time you taste food, otherwise you may contaminate the food.

Do not use a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood unless the plate has first been washed in hot, soapy water.

When You Cook

Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat, poultry, casseroles, and other food. Check the temperature in several places to make sure the food is evenly heated. Wash the thermometer with hot, soapy water after use.

Several types of thermometers are available, including:
  • Oven-safe—insert 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep in the thickest part of the food, at the beginning of the cooking time. It remains there throughout cooking and is not appropriate for thin food.
  • Dial instant-read—not designed to stay in the food during cooking. Insert probe the full length of the sensing area, usually 2 to 2 1/2 inches. If measuring the temperature of a thin food, such as a hamburger patty or boneless chicken breast, insert probe sideways with the sensing device in the center. About 15 to 20 seconds are required for the temperature to be accurately displayed.
  • Digital instant-read—not designed to stay in the food during cooking. The heat sensing device is in the tip of the probe. Place the tip of the probe in the center of the thickest part of the food, at least 1/2 inch deep. About 10 seconds are required for the temperature to be accurately displayed.

Internal Cooking Temperatures

Safe Miminum Internal Temperatures and Cooking Guidelines
Product °F
Egg & Egg Dishes
Eggs Cook until yolk & white are firm
Egg dishes 160
Egg sauces, custards 160
Ground Meat & Meat Mixtures
Turkey, Chicken 165
Beef, Veal, Lamb, Pork 160
Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb and Pork
Steaks, Roasts, and Chops 145 with a 3-minute rest time after removing from the heat source.
Ham
Fresh (raw) 145 with a 3-minute rest time
Fully cooked (to reheat) 140
Roast Beef
Cooked commercially, vacuum sealed, and ready-to-eat 140
Poultry
All products 165
Stuffing
Cooked alone or in bird 165
Sauces, Soups, Gravies, Marinades
Used with raw meat, poultry, or fish Bring to a boil.
Seafood 145
Fin Fish Cook until opaque and flakes easily with a fork.
Shrimp, lobster, crab Should turn red and flesh should become pearly opaque.
Scallops Should turn milky white or opaque and firm.
Clams, mussels, oysters Cook until shells open.
Leftovers & Casseroles 165
Note: These temperatures are recommended for consumer cooking. They are not intended for processing, institutional, or foodservice preparation. Foodservice workers should consult their state or local food code, or health department.

Never partially cook food for finishing later because you increase the risk of bacterial growth on the food. Bacteria are killed when foods reach a safe internal temperature.

Don't use recipes in which eggs remain raw or only partially cooked. Eggs should be prepared immediately after breaking. When possible, substitute pasteurized eggs for raw eggs in cooked dishes.

When preparing food in the oven, set the oven to at least 325 °F. Cook food to the safe internal temperature. Check temperature in several places with a food thermometer.

If a convection oven is used to prepare food, you may reduce oven temperature 25 °F. Refer to oven manufacturer's instructions for additional information.

A microwave oven can be used to prepare food, but care must be taken to make sure food reaches a safe temperature throughout.
  • Know the wattage of your microwave.
  • Stir or rotate food midway through the microwaving time to eliminate cold spots, and for more even cooking. Cover food.
  • Partial cooking may be done in the microwave only if the food is to finish cooking immediately, either on the range, grill, or in a conventional oven.
  • Observe standing times given in recipes so cooking is completed.
  • Use a food thermometer or the oven's temperature probe to be sure the food has reached a safe internal temperature. Check temperature in several places.
  • Check manufacturer's instructions.

For information on cooking times for large quantities of food, contact your health department. Check with your local library or bookstore for books on quantity cooking. Check the Internet for information on quantity cooking.

Danger Zone

Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 °F. To keep food out of this "Danger Zone," keep cold food cold and hot food hot. Keep food cold in the refrigerator, in coolers, or on the serving line on ice. Keep hot food in the oven, in heated chafing dishes, or in preheated steam tables, warming trays and/or slow cookers.

Never leave perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs and casseroles in the "Danger Zone" over 2 hours; 1 hour in temperatures above 90 °F.

When You Chill Food

  • Place food in the refrigerator.
  • Don't overfill the refrigerator. Cool air must circulate to keep food safe.
  • Divide food and place in shallow containers. Slice roast beef or ham and layer in containers in portions for serving.
  • Divide turkey into smaller portions or slices and refrigerate. Remove stuffing from cavity before refrigeration.
  • Place soups or stews in shallow containers. To cool quickly, place in ice water bath and stir.
  • Cover and label cooked foods. Include the preparation date on the label.

When You Transport Food

Keep cold food cold. Place cold food in a cooler with a cold source such as ice or frozen gel packs. Use plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. Keep an appliance thermometer in the cooler. Cold food should be held at 40 °F or below.

Hot food should be kept hot, at or above 140 °F. Wrap well and place in an insulated container.

When You Reheat Food

Heat cooked, commercially vacuum-sealed, ready-to-eat foods, such as hams and roasts, to 140 °F.

Foods that have been cooked ahead and cooled should be reheated to at least 165 °F.

Reheat leftovers thoroughly to at least 165 °F. Reheat sauces, soups, and gravies to a boil.

On Stove Top—Place food in pan and heat thoroughly. The food should reach at least 165 °F on a food thermometer.

In Oven—Place food in oven set no lower than 325 °F. The food should reach at least 165 °F on a food thermometer.

In Microwave—Stir, cover, and rotate fully cooked food for even heating. Allow standing time. Heat food until it reaches at least 165 °F throughout.

In Slow Cooker, Steam Tables or Chafing Dishes—Not Recommended
Reheating leftovers in slow cookers, steam tables or chafing dishes is not recommended because foods may stay in the "Danger Zone," between 40 °F and 140 °F, too long. Bacteria multiply rapidly at these temperatures.

When You Keep Food Hot

Once food is cooked or reheated, it should be held hot, at or above 140 °F. Food may be held in an oven or on a serving line in heated chafing dishes, or on preheated steam tables, warming trays, and/or slow cookers. Always keep hot food hot.

Hot holding for extended periods may reduce the quality of the food.

When You Keep Food Cold

Store food in a refrigerator at 40 °F or below. If there is not enough room in the refrigerator, place food in coolers with ice, or frozen gel packs. Always keep cold food cold.

When You Serve Food

Use clean containers and utensils to serve food.

Do not use a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood unless the plate has first been washed in hot, soapy water.

When a dish is empty or nearly empty, replace with a fresh container of food, removing the previous container.

Keep It Cold
Place cold food in containers on ice. Hold cold foods at or below 40 °F.

Food that will be portioned and served on the serving line should be placed in a shallow container. Place this container inside a deep pan filled partially with ice to keep food cold.

Food like chicken salad and desserts in individual serving dishes can also be placed directly on ice, or in a shallow container set in a deep pan filled with ice. Drain off water as ice melts and replace ice frequently.

Keep It Hot
Once food is thoroughly heated on stovetop, oven or in microwave oven, keep food hot by using a heat source. Place food in chafing dishes, preheated steam tables, warming trays, and/or slow cookers.

Check the temperature frequently to be sure food stays at or above 140 °F.

When You Finish Up

  • Discard all perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs and casseroles, left at room temperature longer than 2 hours; 1 hour in temperatures above 90 °F. Some exceptions to this rule are foods such as cookies, crackers, bread and whole fruit.
  • Immediately refrigerate or freeze remaining leftovers in shallow containers.

The information provided in this publication was developed as a guide for consumers who are preparing food for large groups. For additional information, and to ensure that all state regulations or recommendations for food preparation and service are followed, please contact your local or state health department.

Food service personnel should contact their local or state health department for information on the rules and regulations governing the preparation of food in retail or institutional settings.

Cold Storage Chart*

Note: These short but safe time limits will help keep refrigerated foods from spoiling or becoming dangerous to eat.

Because freezing keeps food safe indefinitely, recommended storage times are for quality only.
Cold Storage Chart
Product Refrigerator
(40 °F)
Freezer
(0 °F)
Eggs
Fresh, in shell 3-5 weeks Don't freeze
Raw yolks, whites 2 to 4 days 1 year
Hardcooked 7 days Don't freeze well
Liquid pasteurized eggs, egg substitutes
opened
3 days Don't freeze well
unopened 10 days 1 year
Mayonnaise
Commercial, refrigerate after opening 2 months Doesn't freeze well
Deli & Vacuum-Packed Products
Store-prepared (or homemade) egg, chicken, tuna, ham, macaroni salads 3 to 5 days Don't freeze well
Hot dogs and Luncheon Meats
Hot dogs
opened package
1 week 1 to 2 months

unopened package
2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Luncheon meats
opened package
3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
unopened package 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Bacon & Sausage
Bacon 7 days 1 month
Sausage, raw from chicken, turkey, pork, beef 1 to 2 days 1 to 2 months
Smoked breakfast links, patties 7 days 1 to 2 months
Hard sausage—pepperoni
 
2 to 3 weeks 1 to 2 months
Summer sausage—labeled "Keep Refrigerated"
opened
3 weeks 1 to 2 months
unopened 3 months 1 to 2 months
Ham, Corned Beef
Corned beef in pouch with pickling juice 5 to 7 days Drained, 1 month
Ham, canned—labeled "Keep Refrigerated"
opened
3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
unopened 6 to 9 months Doesn't freeze well
Ham, fully cooked vacuum sealed at plant, undated, unopened 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Ham, fully cooked vacuum sealed at plant, dated, unopened "use by" date on package 1 to 2 months
Ham, fully cooked
whole
7 days 1 to 2 months
Ham, fully cooked
half
3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
Ham, fully cooked
slices
3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
Hamburger, Ground & Stew Meat
Hamburger & stew meat 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Ground turkey, veal, pork, lamb & mixtures of them 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb, Pork
Steaks 3 to 5 days 6 to 12 months
Chops 3 to 5 days 4 to 6 months
Roasts 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
Variety meats—tongue, liver, heart, kidneys, chitterlings
 
1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Pre-stuffed, uncooked pork chops, lamb chops, or chicken breast stuffed with dressing
 
1 day Don't freeze well
Soups & Stews
Vegetable or meat added 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
Meat Leftovers
Cooked meat and meat casseroles 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
Gravy and meat broth 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
Fresh Poultry
Chicken or turkey, whole 1 to 2 days 1 year
Chicken or turkey, pieces 1 to 2 days 9 months
Giblets 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Cooked Poultry
Fried chicken 3 to 4 days 4 months
Cooked poultry casseroles 3 to 4 days 4 to 6 months
Pieces, plain 3 to 4 days 4 months
Pieces covered with broth, gravy 3 to 4 days 6 months
Chicken nuggets, patties 3 to 4 days 1 to 3 months
Pizza
Pizza 3 to 4 days 1 to 2 months
Stuffing
Stuffing—cooked 3 to 4 days 1 month
Tofu
Tofu 7 days, opened 5 months
Soy or Rice Beverages
Soy or rice beverages 7 to 10 days Don't freeze well
Pasta, Fresh
Pasta, fresh "use by" date unopened,
1 to 2 days opened
2 months
Beverages, Fruit
Juices in cartons
fruit drinks, punch
3 weeks unopened;
7 to 10 days opened
8 to 12 months
Dairy
Butter 1 to 3 months 6 to 9 months
Buttermilk 1 to 2 weeks 3 months
Cheese, Hard (such as Cheddar, Swiss) 6 months, unopened;
3 to 4 weeks, opened
6 months
Cheese Soft (such as Brie, Bel Paese) 1 week 6 months
Cottage Cheese, Ricotta 1 week Doesn't freeze well
Cream Cheese 2 weeks Doesn't freeze well
Cream—Whipped, ultrapasteurized 1 month Doesn't freeze well
Cream—Whipped, Sweetened 1 day 1 to 2 months
Cream—Aerosol can, real whipped cream 3 to 4 weeks Doesn't freeze well
Cream—Aerosol can, non dairy topping
 
3 months Doesn't freeze well
Cream, Half and Half 3 to 4 days 4 months
Eggnog, commercial
 
3 to 5 days 6 months
Margarine 6 months 12 months
Milk 7 days 3 months
Sour cream 7 to 14 days Doesn't freeze well
Yogurt 7 to 14 days 1 to 2 months
Dough
Tube cans of rolls, biscuits, pizza dough, etc. Use-by date Don't freeze well
Ready-to-bake pie crust Use-by date 2 months
Cookie dough Use-by date, unopened or opened 2 months
Fish
Lean fish (cod, flounder, haddock, halibut, sole etc.) 1 to 2 days 6 to 8 months
Lean fish (Pollock, ocean perch, rockfish, sea trout) 1 to 2 days 4 months
Fatty fish (bluefish, mackerel, mullet, salmon, tuna, etc.) 1 to 2 days 2 to 3 months
Cooked fish 3 to 4 days 1 to 2 months
Smoked Fish
Herring 3 to 4 days 2 months
Salmon, whitefish—Cold-smoked 5 to 8 days 2 months
Salmon, whitefish—Hot-smoked 14 days or date on vacuum package 6 months in vacuum package
Shellfish
Shrimp, scallops, crayfish, squid 1 to 2 days 3 to 6 months
Shucked clams, mussels and oysters 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Crab meat—Fresh 1 to 2 days 4 months
Crab meat—Pasteurized 6 months unopened;
3 to 5 days opened
4 months
Live clams, mussels, crab and oysters 1 to 2 days 2 to 3 months
Live lobster 1 to 2 days 2 to 3 months
Lobster tails 1 to 2 days 6 months
Cooked shellfish 3 to 4 days 3 months
Note: Storage times are from date of purchase unless specified on chart. It is not important if a date expires after food is frozen.
Shelf Stable Food Chart*
Shelf-Stable Foods Unopened in Pantry In Refrigerator after Opening
Canned Goods, Low Acid
such as meat, poultry, fish, gravy, stew, soups, beans, carrots, corn, pasta, peas, potatoes, spinach
 
2 to 5 years 3 to 4 days
Canned Goods, High Acid
such as juices, fruit, sauerkraut, tomato soup, and foods in vinegar-based sauce 12 to 18 months 5 to 7 days
*Source
  • Food Safety and Inspection Service
  • The Food Keeper. A Consumers Guide to Food Quality and Safe Handling. The Food Marketing Institute.

Related Publications Available from the FSIS Web site:


Food Safety Information is also Available on the Following Web sites:

Food Safety and Inspection Service
www.fsis.usda.gov

Government Food Safety Information
www.foodsafety.gov

Food and Drug Administration
www.cfsan.fda.gov

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
www.cdc.gov/foodsafety

Partnership for Food Safety Education (Fight BAC!®)
www.fightbac.org

" Ask Karen," FSIS' Web-based automated response system—available 24/7 at AskKaren.gov

You may e-mail your request for multiple copies to FSIS.Outreach@usda.gov. To use a professional printer to print copies of the Guide, a CD-ROM is available.

For Additional Food Safety Information, Contact:

USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854)

QR Code Take Karen with you!
Start using Mobile Ask Karen now!
Go to m.AskKaren.gov, or scan the QR code into your iPhone/iPad or Android-powered device.

USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline; (1-888-674-6854). Also contact "Ask Karen," FSIS' virtual representative, at AskKaren.gov. (Available in English and Spanish)

County/State Cooperative Extension Service, or your County/State Health Department. The telephone number is listed in the Blue Pages of Government Listings in your local phone directory.
Last Modified Jul 02, 2013