October 2021

· 3 min read

Culinary Safety for a Crowd: How to Cool and Reheat Holiday Foods Safely

Taking these 7 simple steps to store, cool and reheat your leftovers can help prevent foodborne illness.
Family celebrating holiday feast - 7 Culinary Tips to Cool and Reheat Holiday Foods Safely | NSF

As the holiday season approaches, we’re all about making things joyful — not stressful. If you’re hosting a holiday dinner, you’re in charge of ensuring that you and your guests stay healthy.

Beyond the invitations and table settings and getting your house ready, the actual prep starts in the kitchen. I’ve discovered it’s best to have a plan in place for keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold before you serve them. Handling and storing leftovers for your family and guests to enjoy for days and weeks to come is another step you don’t want to mess up — and can prevent your guests from going home with something unintended, like a foodborne illness.

The first step is to redefine “potluck.” “Luck” has nothing to do with taking chances on preventing a food poisoning situation over the holidays and beyond. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that cases of foodborne illness often occur during the holiday season. This means they likely arise from family meals (potluck, family style) and are more common than many of us may realize.

Fear not, however — our experts have you covered. To make sure nasty bacteria don’t contaminate your food, following these seven tips will help you keep meals safe before serving, during cooldown, and while storing and reheating leftovers for family and friends.

  1. 1

    Serve It up Safely

    When Grandma arrives with her sweet potatoes and your cousin comes bearing a maple pecan tart, you should be ready to jump in. Keep the potatoes hot and bacteria-free before serving by popping them in the oven to keep warm or reheating them in the microwave. The dessert can quickly go in the fridge until you are ready to eat it.

  2. 2

    Cool It

    Put the leftovers in a shallow dish (9-by-11-inch glass dish or similar container) while they’re still hot. Stir the food as it is cooling to release heat. Hot foods must be cooled to 41˚ F (5˚ C) or lower within six hours to ensure that bacteria don’t grow.

  3. 3

    Think Small

    Portion out food or meals into individual helpings when putting them in the fridge or freezer so that they are ready to grab and go. You will avoid reheating foods twice, which can lead to bacteria growth.

  4. 4

    Head for the Fridge

    Put the shallow containers in the freezer or refrigerator without a lid. The most crucial step of proper cooling is to get the food from its heated temperature to below 70° F (21° C) within a maximum of two hours. Use an NSF-certified thermometer to test the temperature of the food during cooling and at the two-hour mark. You may do this step in the refrigerator or freezer.

  5. 5

    Consider Meat Matters

    Slice your ham or turkey before storing it in the refrigerator to allow for more even cooling. Cover and cool the meat to room temperature before putting it in the fridge, then keep it for up to three days.

  6. 6

    Heat It Up

    Later, when removing your leftover food from the refrigerator, reheat it to 165° F (74˚ C) and keep it warm (135˚ F (57˚ C) or above) while serving or store it back in the fridge within two hours.

  7. 7

    Hot Potatoes

    If they are left to cool and stored correctly, they won’t do you any harm. Cooked potatoes of all types (even your grandma’s sweet potatoes) should be fine in the fridge for up to three days. Just cool them properly.

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