Serving Prepared Foods Safely

Deli and prepared foods can make a busy life just a bit simpler come mealtime. To fully enjoy your takeout meals, follow the steps on this page to ensure your food is safe to eat.

Hot and Cold for Two

The three most important things to remember about serving prepared foods are:

Keep HOT foods HOT!

Hold hot cooked foods between 140°F and 165°F until serving time. Harmful bacteria can grow rapidly below 140°F.When food is cooked to temperatures of 165°F to 212°F, most food-poisoning bacteria is killed. The higher the heat, the less time it takes to kill bacteria.

Keep COLD foods COLD!

Cold food should be held at 40°F or colder. Harmful bacteria can multiply quickly above 40°F. Cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from growing and multiplying. Freezing at 0°F prevents additional bacteria growth.

Follow the 2-Hour Rule

The absolute maximum time for leaving prepared foods at room temperature is 2 hours—including time for preparation, serving and eating. Discard any perishable foods left at room temperature longer than 2 hours. If you are eating outdoors at a picnic or cookout where temperatures are over 90°F, discard foods after 1 hour.

Bringing Home Prepared Foods

Bringing home fresh and delicious prepared foods can make you a hero with your family and friends. Because prepared foods are fresh and unadulterated, bacteria can grow if they are not handled properly. Just remember to follow these guidelines.

Buying It Hot

If you will be dining within 2 hours, pick up your food hot and keep it hot. Make sure to travel home, serve and eat your food within 2 hours from the time you pick it up.

If not eating immediately, keep your food hot, not warm. Set the oven temperature high enough to keep the food between 140°F and 165°F (use a meat thermometer to check). Make sure all of the food stays hot, including side dishes. Cover with foil to keep foods from drying out. To keep your food tasting good, don't hold hot foods for longer than two hours before serving.

To serve hot foods later, divide into small portions, place in shallow containers, and refrigerate or freeze. Remove stuffing from whole cooked poultry and refrigerate separately.

Buying It Cold

Buy cold prepared foods at the end of your shopping trip so they do not warm up in your cart. Take them directly home and refrigerate or freeze immediately. If your trip home is longer than 30 minutes, place your cold prepared foods in a cooler with ice.

Deli meats, also known as "cold cuts," need to remain cold as well. Most refrigerated deli meats are safe to eat for 3 to 5 days; more sensitive cuts like turkey, chicken breast, and rare roast beef may be good for only 2 to 4 days. Buy an appropriate amount to be consumed within these time frames or freeze the extras. If left out of refrigeration for more than two hours, deli meats should be discarded.

Heating It Up

Whether you purchased your prepared foods hot or cold, you need to take care in heating up your meal. Using an oven, microwave, or stovetop, heat foods thoroughly to 165°F, until hot and steaming. Bring gravy to a rolling boil. If heating in a microwave oven, cover food and rotate the dish so it heats evenly. Inadequate heating in the microwave can contribute to illnesses. Consult your microwave owner's manual for complete instructions.

Entertaining Safely

Dishing It Out

Serving foods buffet-style can help make entertaining a number of guests more enjoyable for the host. Just make sure to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

  • Keep hot foods at 140°F or warmer by using chafing dishes, slow cookers, and warming trays.

  • Keep cold foods at 40°F or colder by nesting dishes in bowls of ice. You may also use small serving trays and replace them often.

  • Make sure there are plenty of serving utensils to help your guests serve themselves without mixing foods from different dishes.

  • Be sure to provide a serving spoon and plates for dips and salsas. Placing chips and dips at opposite ends of the buffet table may also help discourage "double-dipping."

Outdoor Parties

Picnics and tailgate parties can be lots of fun as long as you plan for the situation.

  • A well-insulated cooler packed with ice or reusable cold packs is a fine alternative to a refrigerator.

  • Make sure the foods you pack in the cooler, whether purchased or made at home, have been kept below 40°F.

  • Open the cooler as infrequently as possible to retain cold air.

  • Although it may look nice to set all of the food out on the picnic table, it is safer to leave cold foods in the cooler until right before eating.

  • Remember the 2-hour rule when food is removed from the cooler. If the outside temperature is over 90°F, the 2-hour rule drops to only 1 hour-so plan accordingly.

Keeping It Fresh

While it is admirable to not waste good food, be careful to avoid food-borne illness in the process. When in doubt, throw it out.


  • Any food that has been left on a buffet table or in a cooler with melting ice for more than 2 hours must be discarded.

  • Other leftovers can be divided into small portions, placed in shallow containers, and refrigerated or frozen.

  • In general, refrigerated leftovers should be used within 4 days. Frozen leftovers will have the best quality if used within 2 to 4 months.

Storage Chart for Leftovers

Type of Food



Cooked meat or poultry

3 to 4 days

3 to 6 months

Fried chicken

3 to 4 days

4 months


3 to 4 days

1 to 2 months

Egg or tuna salad

3 to 5 days

does not freeze well

Pasta salad

3 to 5 days

does not freeze well

Potato salad

3 to 5 days

does not freeze well

Bean salad

3 to 5 days

does not freeze well

Green salad

1 to 2 days

does not freeze well

Deli meats

3 to 5 days

1 to 2 months


1 to 2 days

2 to 3 months


3 to 4 days

2 to 3 months


  1. Partnership for Food Safety Education — a public-private coalition of industry, government and consumer groups dedicated to educating the public about safe food handling to help reduce food-borne illness.

  2. Food Marketing Institute — a non-profit association conducting programs in research, education, and public affairs on behalf of retailers, wholesalers and consumers.

  3. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service 5. Wittenberg, Margaret. Good Food — The Comprehensive Food and Nutrition Resource. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1995