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Catering for large groups

Cooking for a crowd can be challenging. The key is planning ahead.

If you're cooking a meal for friends or family, you need to consider that you’ll probably be cooking for more people than usual, maybe cooking foods you don’t cook very often and possibly storing larger amounts of food than usual. To minimise the risk of food poisoning at home, it makes sense to plan ahead and here are some tips to help you out.

Food poisoning is at best a miserable experience and at worst, potentially dangerous. Some of the most common mistakes that can lead to food poisoning are:

  • Poor storage of food.
  • Cold foods not being kept cold or hot foods not being kept hot.
  • Inadequate cooking of foods.
  • Not separating raw and ready-to-eat food.

How to store large amounts of food

Cooking for larger numbers of people mean larger quantities of food (both cooked and uncooked) competing for limited amounts of space in your fridge and freezer. Inappropriate storage of food is one of the most commonly reported slip-ups that contribute to incidences of food poisoning so here’s how to make the most of your food storage space.

  • Always look at labels on packaged foods to see how it should be stored - if it says the food needs to be refrigerated, make sure you do so.
  • Always observe "Use-by" dates and if in doubt, throw it out.
  • You can make more room in a fridge by storing vegetables and drinks (except milk and fruit juices) in a cool place.
  • Separate all raw and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Keep all raw meat, poultry and fish in a leak proof container in the bottom of the fridge. This is to ensure that any drips from the raw food will not make contact with other foods, particularly ready-to-eat foods. If you have a salad tray or drawers in your fridge, protect those from any drips too.

How to keep foods at the right temperature

Some foods need to be kept chilled to keep them safe, for example, foods with a "Use-By" date on their label; foods that you have cooked and won’t serve immediately and other ready-to-eat foods such as salads. It’s important to keep these high-risk foods in the fridge.

  • Your fridge should be kept between 0-5°C. Use a fridge thermometer to check the temperature regularly (you can get these from most hardware shops).
  • Don’t overload your fridge. Your fridge won’t work as well if the cooling air circulating within it cannot flow freely.
  • Keep the fridge door closed as much as possible as leaving the door open raises the temperature.
  • Those foods that need to be kept in the fridge should be prepared last. Don’t leave foods at room temperature as harmful bacteria can grow and multiply to dangerous levels.
  • Cooked leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours. You can help cool leftovers down for the fridge by cutting them into smaller pieces.

How to prepare food safely

Cooking for a larger number of people than usual will mean greater quantities of raw and cooked food being prepared. This also means more pots, pans, plates and utensils used, more washing up and busy kitchen worktops.

  • Prepare raw and ready-to-eat food separately. Don’t use the same knife or chopping board for raw meat and then on ready-to-eat food unless they have been cleaned thoroughly first by scrubbing with hot soapy water between uses.
  • Wash dishes, chopping boards, worktops and utensils thoroughly hot soapy water between uses.
  • Wash hands regularly with warm soapy water to keep the clean, especially between handling raw and ready-to-eat foods. Always wash them before touching food, after using the toilet, after touching pets or the dustbin.
  • Keep dishcloths clean and change them frequently. Always change tea towels and hand towels often. You might find paper towels a more hygienic option.

How to cook food safely

Cooking food thoroughly is the key to killing most harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Large meat joints or whole poultry are more difficult to cook so you need take special care with them.

  • Make sure meat and poultry are fully thawed before you cook them, or your planned cooking time might not be long enough.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to defrost meat and poultry - the safest and recommended way is to place it on a dish or tray on the bottom shelf of your fridge. You should allow 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds/1.8-2.2kg.
  • Use cooking instructions on packaging as a guide but always check that the centre of the food is piping hot. This is especially important for poultry or rolled or chopped/minced lamb, beef or pork which must be cooked until they are piping hot the whole way through, there is no pink meat left and the juices run clear.
  • Don’t be tempted to cut your cooking time just because people are waiting to eat.
  • With leftovers, make sure cooked food is not reheated more than once. Always heat until piping hot all the way through and check regularly that hot food is kept hot until serving.
  • Take proper care with leftovers. Throw away any high risk food that has been left at room temperature for more than two hours. Store leftovers in clean covered containers in the fridge and eat within three days.

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