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Potluck Safety 101

Tomorrow is the annual office potluck, and you’re getting ready to make Grandma’s award-winning potato salad recipe! You’re focused on preparing all of the ingredients correctly, so you’ll get your usual compliments—“This is the best potato salad I’ve ever tasted”—but have you given any thought to food safety and making sure your potato salad remains safe to eat during the potluck?

We asked food and nutrition expert, Nicole Hahn, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix, for her tips on a successful and safe potluck.

Food Preparation Safety Tips

Safe food consumption starts at the preparation phase. You probably learned as a child to wash your hands with warm water and soap before handling food. Besides this basic step, Hahn shares these additional safety tips for preparing potluck food: 

  • Clean or sanitize your food preparation area prior to beginning any food prep
  • Use separate cutting boards and knives for raw meats, poultry and fish and keep those items away from other foods (cooked or uncooked)
  • Wash your hands after handling raw meat, poultry or fish
  • Do not store raw meats over or near prepared or ready-to-eat foods in the refrigerator
  • Do not allow food to sit out without temperature control tools for more than 2 hours
  • If you’re sick, let someone else make Grandma’s famous potato salad, so you don’t spread your germs to the potluck guests

Best Practices for Safe Serving

Preparing food safely is an important first step; ensuring Grandma’s famous potato salad stays safe for the duration of the potluck is just as critical. Hahn offers these tips for safe food temperatures and serving:

  • Use chafing dishes, slow cookers and steam tables to keep foods hot; hot foods should remain at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter
  • Ice bowls, coolers or other insulated dishes should be used with cold dishes to keep them cold; cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder
  • Avoid the Temperature Danger Zone (TDZ) between 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit where bacteria can quickly multiply
  • Have appropriate serving utensils for each dish so that guests aren’t tempted to use their hands to serve

When in Doubt, Throw it Out

No matter how delicious Grandma’s potato salad is, if it’s been sitting out on the potluck table for more than a couple hours, it’s time to toss. “Perishable food items—like those containing dairy, eggs, poultry, fish—should be discarded if left out, not at the recommended safe temperature, for more than 2 hours,” Hahn said.

Potlucks are also known for their leftovers—but be careful here, too. If food has been held at a safe temperature for the correct amount of time, you’re safe to take and store leftovers in your refrigerator. If not, toss it out.

Food Poisoning Warning Signs

Nobody wants to experience food poisoning or be the cause of someone else’s food-related illness. If you follow these steps above, you’re off to a good start, but it’s important to recognize possible food poisoning symptoms and to seek timely treatment:

  • Stomach pain/gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Weakness or dizziness

Potlucks are great, especially when you have Grandma’s undefeated potato salad recipe. Just be sure to take caution so that your victory doesn’t come at an uncomfortable cost. Learn more about food safety and be the best office-chef you can be.

Nutrition Safety

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