Keep Food Safe at Community Dinners and Potlucks

(FN619, Revised June 2021)

Safe food handling is important, especially when groups of people are fed at community events. Temperature control is a critical issue for volunteer food handlers. keep food safe when preparing and serving food to large groups.

Lead Author
Lead Author:
Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., Food and Nutrition Specialist
Other Authors

Sandra Rather, R.D., Former Food Safety Program Coordinator

Available in print from the NDSU Distribution Center.

Contact your county NDSU Extension office to request a printed copy.
NDSU staff can order copies online (login required).

Publication Sections

Leading Causes of Foodborne Illness

  • Failure to cool food properly
  • Food not hot enough
  • Infected food handler
  • Preparation a day or more ahead of time
  • Raw food mixed with cooked food
  • Food left in the DANGER ZONE (41 to 140 F)
  • Cross-contamination

Foods Linked to Foodborne Illness

Many foods can support the growth of microorganisms that may cause foodborne illness. Potentially hazardous foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, fish and eggs are moist and contain protein, which provide good conditions for bacterial growth. Other potentially hazardous foods include cooked rice, alfalfa sprouts, melons, and baked and boiled potatoes.

Keep Food Safe at Community Dinners

  • Select a person who is familiar with food service sanitation to be in charge. Hold a short training session for volunteers.
  • Prepare food in a kitchen specifically designed for quantity food production.
  • Plan ahead! Make sure the location meets your needs. Does it have adequate storage space in the refrigerator and freezer? Does it have the cooking and hot-holding equipment you need?
  • Obtain food from inspected sources.
  • Store and prepare food safely. Refrigerate or freeze potentially hazardous foods in shallow containers within two hours of shopping or preparing.
  • Prepare and cook food safely.
  • Always work with clean hands.
  • Cook food to the recommended safe internal temperature.
  • Never partially cook food for finishing later because you increase the risk of bacterial growth.
  • For best quality and safety, prepare foods close to serving time.
  • Refrigerate ingredients for salads before mixing them together.

Keep Food Safe During Preparation

An illustration of a thermometer that is blue at the bottom and red at the top. Between 40 degree F and 140 degrees F there is large yellow explosion graphic with the words "Danger Zone" in red.

 The Danger Zone for food is between 40 degrees F, refrigerator temperature, and 140 degrees F, hold hot food above this temperature.

  • 0 degrees F - Freezer temperature
  • 40 degrees F - Refrigerator temperature
  • 140 degrees F - Hold HOT foods
  • 145 degrees F - Pork or beef steaks, roasts, veal, lamb (medium rare after three-minute rest time)
  • 160 degrees F - Meats (medium), egg dishes and ground meats
  • 165 degrees F - Stuffing, whole poultry, poultry breasts, ground poultry, reheat leftovers

Remember these four steps to food safety:

  • Wash hands and surfaces that come into contact with food.
  • Don’t cross-contaminate! Keep raw meat away from ready-to-eat foods such as lettuce, melons and bread.
  • Wash cutting boards after use.
  • Cook food to the recommended internal temperature. Measure temperatures with a clean, calibrated food thermometer.
  • Don’t cook food partially for finishing later because that increases the risk of bacterial growth.
  • Keep time between cooking and serving to a minimum; preferably prepare food within several hours of the event.
  • Refrigerate perishable foods promptly in shallow containers. Thick foods such as stew should be no more than 2 inches deep; thinner foods such as soup should be no more than 3 inches deep.
  • Keep refrigerators at 40 F or lower.

Keep Food Safe When Transporting

When bringing food to a potluck, keep these tips in mind:

  • Keep cold foods cold. Keep food at or below 40 F. Place in a cooler with a cold source, such as ice.
  • Keep hot foods hot. Use insulated containers for hot items such as stews and chili. Pack right before you leave and don’t open them until serving time.
  • Tightly seal and wrap foods.
  • Do not transport food with animals.

Note: If you won’t be able keep food adequately hot or cold, serve items such as dried fruit, nuts, peanut butter sandwiches, apples and bananas.

Keep Food Safe from Source to Service

Controlling hazards from source to service is the key to safe food.

Your local health department or state agency can tell you what types of food can be served under both local and state ordinances.

Contact them with any questions you have regarding food offered to the public. It’s their job to make sure food is served safely, not to shut down a community event!

Keep Food Safe When Serving

  • Use clean dishes and utensils to serve. “Germs” can survive and grow in food left on utensils.
  • Keep serving portions small when you are not sure how quickly the food will be eaten.
  • Replace empty platters with freshly filled ones. Don’t add new food to a serving dish that already contained food.
  • Discard any food left out at room temperature for more than two hours.

Keep Hot Foods Hot

  • Hold cooked or reheated food above 140 F; place in hot holding equipment, such as chafing dishes, crock pots and warming trays.
  • Reheat previously prepared food to 165 F, using a stove, oven or microwave oven.
  • Check temperatures frequently!

Keep Cold Foods Cold

  • Place cold food in containers on ice.
  • Hold cold foods at or below 40 F.

Keep Food Safe When Storing Leftovers

  • Immediately refrigerate or freeze food that was not served. Discard leftovers of food that was served.
  • Divide food and place in shallow containers. Don’t put more than 2 inches of thick foods such as beef stew into each container. Soup and other thin foods should be no more than 3 inches deep.
  • Use or discard chilled foods on a regular basis. Don’t depend on maximum storage time. For more information, the “Food Storage Guide” (FN579) is available on the NDSU Extension website: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/food-nutrition/food-storage-guide-answers-the-question

This publication is based on the “Fight BAC” campaign of the Partnership for Food Safety Education: www.fightbac.org.

For more information about food safety, visit these websites:

NDSU Extension: www.ag.ndsu.edu/food

North Dakota Department of Health: www.health.state.nd.us

Keep cold food cold and hot food hot.

Frequently monitor time and temperature of potentially hazardous foods. Bacteria multiply rapidly in the temperature danger zone (between 41 and 140 F).

Cook to Safe Internal Temperatures

The following table shows the temperature recommendations from the USDA and Food and Drug Administration. USDA temperature recommendations commonly are used in consumer handouts. Food service establishments commonly use FDA temperature recommendations. Health inspectors use FDA guidelines in their inspections of food service establishments.

Food Safety Temperature Recommendations from the USDA and Food and Drug Administration
Item USDA Temperatures
(in degrees Fahrenheit)
FDA Temperatures
(in degrees Fahrenheit)*
Whole poultry, thighs, wings 165


Chicken breasts 165 165
Ground turkey/chicken 165 165
Beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks and roasts 145 (medium rare)**
160 (medium)


Ground beef, pork, veal, fish, lamb and other ground meats 160 155
Egg dishes 160 155
Soups, stews, stuffing and casseroles 165 165
Stuffed meat, poultry, fish and pasta 165 165
Leftovers 165 165
Ham, precooked 140 140
Ham, fresh (raw) 145** 145
Fish, shellfish 145 145
Fruits and vegetables that are cooked 140 140

* Recommended temperature must be maintained for at least 15 seconds on the thermometer dial.
**Allow three-minute rest time.