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Holiday Food Safety: Keep Bacteria Off Your Menu

The holidays often mean family, fun, and food. But beware – bacteria can lurk in holiday buffet goodies and cause foodborne illness. Follow these guidelines for group platters to protect your guests from harmful foodborne bacteria.Roasted ham on white platter

Keep HOT foods HOT and COLD foods COLD.

Bacteria can double every 20 minutes in food at room temperature. It’s important to keep hot foods at 140 °F with slow cookers or chafing dishes. Keep cold foods at 40 °F or colder by putting them in dishes nested in ice.

Remember the two-hour rule.

Don’t leave perishable food at room temperature for more than two hours, or bacteria can start to grow. If you’ve lost track of time and can’t remember how long that macaroni salad has been on the buffet, remember: when in doubt, throw it out! Your guests will appreciate it.

Learn the Dos & Don’ts for your holiday favorites.

Now that you have a couple of key guidelines to help keep your holiday buffet safe, here are some common dishes that might make an appearance on your party table and tips for how to keep them safe from uninvited guests.


It’s delicious, it’s creamy, and it can contain Salmonella if raw or undercooked eggs are part of the ingredient list. If you’re making eggnog from scratch, follow these steps for “eggstra” safe ‘nog.

  • Do: Use only pasteurized eggs or egg products in the egg base.

Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria.

  • Do: Heat the egg base to 160°F to kill all bacteria.

To keep the eggs runny (and delicious), add milk or sugar to the base. Check out the Holiday Eggnog recipe from USDA for easy and safe eggnog instructions. 

  • Don’t: Rely on alcohol to kill bacteria.

Adding rum or other alcohol to your eggnog may not kill all the harmful bacteria. That’s why using pasteurized eggs and heating the egg base are so important.


From glazed ham to ham salad, this meat can appear on the buffet table in many forms. It’s also a common culprit of foodborne illness. Here are a few tips to keep your ham and ham dishes safe.

  • Do: Pay attention to the label.

Some hams are ready to eat and others must be cooked first. Hams that must be cooked have cooking instructions on the label.

  • Do: Store your ham in the refrigerator.

Use ham slices within four days and whole ham within a week.

  • Do: Cook your ham to a safe temperature.

Take a look at our Ham Cooking Chart to find out how to cook your ham based on its cut and weight.

Deli meats

Deli meats, or cold cuts, are a popular staple on holiday buffets. But deli meats can harbor Listeria, bacteria that can be especially dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn babies.

  • Do: Avoid deli meats if you’re pregnant. 

If you absolutely must have deli meats, heat them until they are steaming hot.

  • Do: Store deli meats in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat them.

Use deli-sliced meats within three to five days of buying them, even if the best-before date is later.

  • Do Keep fluid from deli meat packages away from other foods, utensils, or food prep surfaces.

If you do make a mess, clean it with s oap and water immediately. wishes you and your family a safe and happy holiday season. For more information on Holiday Food Safety, view our Holiday General Information page.


If you have any other questions about buffets, group platters, or food safety in general contact us at the Hotline (1-888-674-6854 toll-free) or online at   ( for questions in Spanish)

Tagged: Christmas | Holiday | Buffet | Group | Eggnog | Ham | Meat