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Wilburn: Remember these rules when cooking for a crowd
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Community festivals are very popular during the fall season and food is an important part of these events. Volunteers are a vital part of these functions and contribute many hours of work to make them successful.

There are several steps in the planning, preparing, serving and storing of food that will help volunteers to ensure safe food service when cooking for groups.

During the planning stage, select a reliable person to be in charge. This person will provide direction for the volunteers, be able to answer questions and oversee preparation, service and cleanup.

Contact the local health department for food rules and regulations. Gather the proper equipment, ensure that there is a safe, drinkable water source and have enough space for the preparation, service and storage of the food.

After planning, here are 10 food safety rules that will help volunteers keep food safe during the preparing, serving and storage process:

1. Clean and sanitize frequently

This is important to prevent the spread of bacteria in the kitchen. Wash hands with soap and hot water. Use paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces. Separate cutting boards should be used for fresh produce and raw meats, poultry and fish. Wash and sanitize cutting boards, dishes and kitchen surfaces. Make sanitizer solution by mixing 1 teaspoon of bleach with 1 quart of water.

2. Thawing

If food has to be defrosted, thaw in the refrigerator and never at room temperature! Thawing is also allowed under constant cold, running water, preferably completely submerged and in an airtight wrapping. Defrosting in a microwave is acceptable when thawing is a part of the cooking process.

3. Check the temperature

Invest in a food thermometer to check the recommended internal temperature of food. Make sure it can be calibrated and wash with hot, soapy water after each use. Check the internal temperatures in several places in the food to be sure bacteria are destroyed by the cooking process. Post a recommended internal cooking temperature chart at the site.

4. Cook thoroughly

Never partially cook food for finishing later and don’t use recipes in which eggs remain raw or partially cooked. Substitute pasteurized eggs for raw eggs when possible.

5. . Shopping tips

When shopping, remember to separate raw meats from other foods in the grocery cart and in the refrigerator. Purchase cold foods last and bring a cooler to transport them to the event location where they can be properly stored. Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods and leftovers within two hours of shopping or preparing. Refrigerator temperature must be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder and freezer temperature zero degrees Fahrenheit or colder. (Use appliance thermometers to check the temperatures.) Do not purchase dented, bulging or rusted canned products.

6. Watch the danger zone

Keep food out of the temperature danger zone, which is 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit. Bacteria can grow to unsafe levels in a very short period of time in this zone. Keep cold foods below 40 F and hot foods above 140 F. Never leave food in the danger zone for more than two hours; one hour in temperatures above 90 F. When transporting food, the same rules apply — use coolers filled with plenty of ice for cold foods and insulated containers for hot foods.

7. Reheating

When reheating food, heat cooked, commercially packaged ready to eat foods to 140 F. Foods that have been cooked ahead and cooled should be reheated to at least 165 F. Leftovers are reheated to 165 F. Do not reheat foods in slow cookers, steam tables or chafing dishes.

8. Keep hot food hot

Hold hot food at or above 140 F and cold food at or below 40 F. Use clean containers and utensils to serve food and do not mix old food with new. Check the internal temperatures often and discard foods that have been in the danger zone for two or more hours. Immediately chill leftovers and store properly.

9. Stay chill

Once food is cooked, chill properly if you are planning to store. Chill in the refrigerator making sure not to overfill the refrigerator. Divide food into smaller portions or containers. Use an ice water bath to speed the process, if possible, then cover and label foods with the name of the product and preparation date. The air must be able to circulate around the food in the refrigerator in order to keep it cold.

10. And when in doubt ...

When cooking for a group, always use these food safety rules. Just remember the most important rule of all: when in doubt, throw it out!


Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension Service. Contact: 770-535-8290 or

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