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How to Keep Dangerous Foodborne Germs Away From Your Potluck Meals

A lot of people have strong feelings about potluck meals. You might be in the “love ’em” camp, where you look forward to trying lots of different foods and maybe even bringing home a few new recipes. Or you might be in the “not for me” camp, where you expect you’ll be choosing from 20 fruit salads and no main dishes.

Regardless of how you feel about potlucks, you probably find yourself at one, or sharing meals with others, at least once in a while. However, potluck dishes can put you at risk for food poisoning and you need to be careful. It’s important that you and everyone there prepare, store and serve foods safely.

Food and nutrition expert Nicole Hahn, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix, shared her tips for safe food handling at a potluck from start to finish.

How to prepare your potluck dish safely

A healthy potluck starts before you begin cooking. If you’re generally following good food-handling practices when you cook, these food preparation safety tips should be second nature:

  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap before handling food.
  • Clean and sanitize your food preparation area. Clear away any crumbs, clean the surface with hot water and dishwashing liquid, then wipe it with a disinfectant wipe and let it air dry.
  • Use separate cutting boards and knives for raw meat, poultry and fish and keep them away from other foods.
  • Wash your hands after handling raw meat, poultry, fish or eggs and any time your hands are soiled.
  • Do not store raw meats above or near prepared or ready-to-eat foods in the refrigerator.
  • Don’t let food sit out for more than two hours unless you keep it chilled or hot.
  • If you have cooked foods and are storing them, divide them into smaller, shallow containers before putting them in the refrigerator or freezer.
  • When you thaw foods, don’t leave them out at room temperature for more than two hours.
  • When you reheat foods, make sure they reach at least 165 degrees F.
  • If you’re sick, have someone else prepare the meal, so you don’t spread your germs to the guests.

How to serve your potluck dish safely

You may have to transport your food to a potluck, and once you get there, you might not be serving it immediately. So, you want to make sure your dish stays at safe food temperatures for potluck safety. Keep cold foods below 40 degrees F and hot foods above 140 degrees F. “In the 40-to-140-degree range, bacteria can multiply quickly,” Hahn said.

Follow these best practices for safe serving:

  • Use chafing dishes, slow cookers, pressure cookers or steam tables to keep hot potluck foods hot.
  • Use ice bowls, coolers or insulated dishes to keep cold foods cold.
  • Serve smaller portions of potluck dishes and keep back-ups in the fridge to refill when levels get low.
  • Keep hot foods together in one area and cold foods together in another area.

Along with safe temperatures, these other tips can help keep germs from spreading in the serving zone:

  • Make sure plenty of serving utensils are available so guests aren’t tempted to touch food with their hands.
  • Pre-portion your dish if possible, so it’s easier for guests to take one serving.
  • Organize serving stations in a logical flow—salads, appetizers, main dishes, desserts, utensils, beverages, etc.—so guests aren’t doubling back for items.

Know when it’s time to say goodbye

When you’re socializing at a potluck, you might lose track of time and be tempted to fill your plate again after a while. But any perishable food items that haven’t been kept at safe temperatures for more than two hours need to be thrown out.

If you’re planning to take leftovers home from the potluck, pack them up and store them in a refrigerator or a cooler with ice before they reach the two-hour time limit.

And when planning for a potluck, don’t bring too much food. You don’t need to prepare enough for everyone at the potluck. When you overdo it, you might be tempted to take home food, so it doesn’t go to waste.

Watch for these food poisoning warning signs

Despite your best efforts, there are a lot of different foods and chefs at a potluck dinner, and you might find yourself facing possible food-poisoning symptoms. Watch for these food poisoning warning signs:

  • Upset stomach or stomach pain
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness

Most cases of food poisoning clear up on their own. Rest and avoid eating or drinking for a few hours. Then try some water, ginger or mint tea, sports drinks with electrolytes, or bland foods such as crackers, rice or toast. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may also want to take over-the-counter medications for nausea or diarrhea.

See your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • Severe pain
  • A fever over 100.4 degrees F
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than three days
  • Blood in your vomit or stool
  • Become dehydrated

The bottom line

Potluck meals can give you the chance to try lots of different foods, but they also create opportunities for foodborne germs and illnesses to thrive. Safe preparation and serving strategies can help keep you healthy. If you would like to talk to a health care professional about lowering your risk for food poisoning, reach out to Banner Health.

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