University of Vermont

Cultivating Healthy Communities

Keeping Food Safe When Guests Are Late

dinner table photo

Burlington--You've planned THE party of the season. The halls are decked, the buffet table overflowing and your guests are no-shows due to an unexpected snowstorm. What to do?

Londa Nwadike, University of Vermont Extension food safety specialist, notes that while unpredictable winter weather can put a crimp in the best laid plans, all is not lost. Proper handling of party foods will help salvage the evening.

"If your guests will be delayed for only a few hours, you can hold the food by keeping hot foods hot, and cold foods cold. It's especially critical that perishable foods, including cooked food, meat or poultry, not remain in the danger zone (40 to 140 degrees F) for more than two hours.

"The best solution to keep hot food hot is to place it in the oven at 200 to 250 degrees F," she says. "Put an oven-safe meat thermometer in the thickest part of your roast or poultry or the center of your casserole. Adjust the oven temperature so the food maintains at an internal temperature of 140 degrees F or above. To prevent foods from drying out, cover the dishes or wrap tightly in aluminum foil."

If guests are delayed for three to four hours, refrigerate hot food and reheat when everyone has arrived. Food placed in shallow containers will cool rapidly to a safe temperature in the refrigerator.

Nwadike says, "Don't worry about putting hot foods directly into the refrigerator because its thermostat will keep the unit running to maintain a safe temperature of 40 degrees F or below. Food will need to be reheated until hot and steaming--to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Cold foods should be kept refrigerated until serving time."

If you cooked a stuffed turkey, remove from the oven and allow to stand until it is cool enough to handle, about 20 minutes. Then scoop the stuffing into a shallow container, cover and refrigerate.

Carve the turkey. If you plan to serve cold, arrange on platters. If you plan to reheat, place in shallow oven-safe baking dishes or pans. Cover. Refrigerate. You can make the gravy now, or pour off the drippings and refrigerate to make later.

What happens if no one comes?

"If you can reschedule your party within three to four days, you can safely store cooked foods in your refrigerator. For longer storage, freeze cooked meat, poultry or casseroles in shallow, airtight containers," the food safety specialist advises. "Food also may be wrapped in heavy duty aluminum foil or freezer wrap. Use within three to four months.

"Vegetables, pasta and rice can be frozen although cream sauces may separate or become lumpy. However, they are still safe to serve."

Raw poultry and ground meat can be refrigerated for up to two days, raw steaks and roasts for up to five before spoiling. If the meat was thawed in the refrigerator, it can be safely refrozen. Quality may be slightly affected when refrozen.

For answers to your food safety questions, call the U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hotline at (888) 674-6854. Trained home economists, dieticians, and food technologists staff the toll-free hotline from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST weekdays. An extensive selection of food safety recordings also can be accessed 24 hours a day.