• Thursday, April 20, 2017

    Don’t test your luck: food safety and pot lucks

    Happy Easter!

    Our church, Presley Chapel UMC.
    We'd love to have you join us!
    Our little church has an Easter tradition of a church pot luck after the egg hunt.  As I was making my dishes on Sunday morning, and loading them in the back of my car for the ¾-mile trip to our country church, my meat-scientist husband and I had several discussions about the safest preparation and storage plans for our dishes. That got me thinking that lots of people probably have questions about preparing, storing and traveling with food for a potluck.

    Food safety is especially important at potluck dinners because you are preparing food for a wide variety of people, including vulnerable people like the elderly, or the sick, or small children. The food is more likely to sit out a while before being served, and lots of people have probably handled it. As with any food prep, be sure to remember the 4 steps of food safety Clean, Cook, Chill, and Separate. Other than that, I have a few other thoughts specific to potluck foods.

    First, clean.

    Be sure to wash your hands and make sure your utensils and dishes are clean. Sometimes, my casserole dishes get a little neglected in the back of the cabinet, so I washed them before I started. Deadly bacteria may live on dust and adding wet food and warm temperatures can stimulate them to grow and produce toxins that make people very sick, very fast.


    Make sure you keep foods that you plan to cook, like raw meat and eggs, separated from those that you will eat without cooking, like breads and fresh fruit and vegetables. Keep the dishes and utensils separate, too. When there’s space, I try to prepare uncooked foods in a completely separate part of the kitchen than ready-to-eat foods.


    When you are preparing a dish for a potluck, it is especially important to use a meat thermometer on meats and dishes containing eggs. Make sure you get things cooked to 160°F (165°F for poultry).  Even dishes that don’t contain meat should probably be cooked to 160°F, that should help kill any bacteria that may cause spoilage or could grow during the storage times and make people sick.

    (At potluck dinners, you don’t have much control on how long the dishes are held, but you can be extra cautious about cleanliness and cookery to eliminate bacteria in the dish initially. That way, fewer bacteria are present to grow in the dish before it’s served.) 


    Picnics or potlucks,
    get your leftovers in the fridge!
    Knowing when to chill a dish for potluck is hard. I made three dishes on Sunday morning at 8 am. I knew that we would probably not eat until after 12:15. So, I had to decide if I wanted to keep my dishes warm for 4 hours or chill them down and heat them back up. Our church is small, and we have a brand new oven in the kitchen. I decided to put them in the fridge and warm them back up before we served lunch. The main concern is to minimize the amount of time your dishes spend in the Danger Zone of temperature (40°F to 140°F) before they are served.


    When you cook your food and it reaches 160°F or higher, most of the bacteria are killed. So, keeping it covered will keep new bacteria out during the trip to the dinner. Some of the people at church on Sunday, covered their dishes with foil when they cooked it, then covered the foil with those plastic lids that come with the casserole dishes. I thought that was a great idea, once the food was cooked, it didn’t have to be uncovered until it was served. I was not as pleased with my foil covering on my dishes, but it got the job done. 


    When you live ¾ of a mile from church, you can throw the softball stuff to one side of your trunk and transport your dishes for potluck in the back of your car (The hills didn’t cause them to spill! YAY!). Most people don’t have that luxury, so you have to think about traveling with your potluck dish.
    My best advice is simply to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

    Use a cooler with ice packs for cold dishes like coleslaw or deviled eggs. If a cooler is too bulky, you might just pack some ice in a large baggie and place your dishes on it. For warm dishes, there are some great thermal casserole carriers that you can buy or put them in a cooler to keep them warm. If you don’t have far to go, just wrapping the dishes in towels will help keep them warm.


    If you need to reheat your dish, be sure to use a thermometer and heat it to 160°F. Take the temperature in a few places in the dish. Some ovens don’t heat evenly, especially older ones, and you want to make sure the whole dish warm.


    Just like at home, you don’t want those leftovers to set out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Get them covered and in the fridge as soon as you can.

    Other thoughts.

    ·       Preparing single-serving items, like fried chicken, green bean bundles, or deviled eggs, minimizes the number of people who handle the food, which would minimize the chances of contamination.
    ·        You may consider listing any allergens that your food may contain on an index card to accompany your dish. Common allergens include wheat, dairy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, shell fish, fish and soy. If there are people with diabetes in your crowd, you may think about making dishes without sugar.
    ·        If you have a good distance to travel, you may consider making dishes that are less likely to spoil. For instance, you may make a savory green bean bundle rather than the classic green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup. Salty and sugary dishes are less likely to spoil that dishes that contain more cream and mayonnaise.
    ·        When taste-testing your dishes, be sure to use a new spoon every time. Don’t be a double dipper.
    ·        If you’ve been sick, just go buy something from the store for the potluck. Fried chicken, drinks, ice. Don’t try to prepare anything. You don’t want to spread your illness.

    I love potluck dinners, but they can be dangerous if people are not careful about food safety. I hope that you can feel a little more confident about preparing food for them in the future. Please ask me any questions you may have in the comments.

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