Somali 7

The Journey of Food, Holding Food for Service

Holding hot and cold food for service is another dangerous point in the “Journey of Food.”

You have stored, prepped, and cooked the food correctly, it leaves your kitchen perfectly safe, and then it could be exposed to the Temperature Danger Zone for several hours.

The risks of time & temperature abuse and cross-contamination are very high!

In a perfect world, the ideal operation, from a food safety perspective, is to cook the food and then serve it immediately. With buffets and self-service operations, this will not be the case and you need to think about how you will protect the food for up to 6 hours, not just 5 or 10 minutes.

As a manager, you need to assess the risks and look at which controls you can put into place. Your staff will play a major role in protecting food safety and their training will be vitally important. Correct policies and procedures are critical.

It’s worth remembering that “hot-holding at the wrong temperature,” is one of the top 10 causes of foodborne illness.

In this chapter, we are going to look at holding methods and front-of-house service ideas to help reduce the risks of cross-contamination in both traditional table service and self-service areas. We are also going to throw in some cleaning suggestions to consider.


Let’s start with hot-holding. It is a widely used practice and is a great way of extending the life of a product on display at peak service times.

The golden rule is that you must keep the food, (hot-hold), at a minimum temperature of 135°F or above. This will allow the food to be protected against bacterial multiplication.

And it is a good idea to stir the food regularly. This way you will not get any cold spots. (Where the temperature can allow bacteria to multiply)

The best way to hot hold is to use a bain-marie or heat lamp on a service counter, and make sure you check the food temperature regularly. Be careful of food that is on the edges of a counter, furthest away from the heat lamps.

Ensure that staff understands when to take temperatures and where to record them. We have attached a downloadable form for you to use.

At the end of service throw away any left-over food.

If you do want to store and re-heat at the next service, make sure you protect the food in suitable covered containers, allow it to cool, and store it in either the cooler or freezer.

Best Practice

Make sure the food is at the correct temperature, 135°F or above, before placing it into hot-holding equipment. Never use a bain-marie or heat lamps to actually cook the food!

Only hot hold food for a maximum of 4 hours, (our recommendation), and check the temperature every 30 minutes. Make sure you stir the food before taking the temperature.

Also, another golden rule is never to add new food to old food. Destroy the old food, clean and sanitize the serving or display dish, and completely replace it with new food.


With cold food, follow the same guidelines as hot holding. The difference is, the temperature must stay at or below 41°F.

Cold food is more dangerous to hold as many of the food items will be TCS foods and may not have gone through a cook, (kill stage). Make sure staff know the dangers and the importance of temperature monitoring.


Legally you can hold both hot and cold food without using temperature controls. You can hot hold for up to 4 hours and cold hold for up to 6 hours.

You must meet certain requirements which include:

  • If you are serving an outside event, wedding function, hotel reception, the food will be on display for a short time.
  • Cold food should be held at 41°F or lower before removing from storage.
  • Cold food must be labeled with a discard time, 6 hours from removal from storage.
  • The cold food on display does not exceed 70°F while being served.
  • Food must be destroyed after 6 hours.
  • Hot food can be held for up to 4 hours.
  • It must be at 135°F before removing from its temperature control.
  • Hot food must be labeled with a discard time, 6 hours from removal from storage.

If you serve any of the vulnerable, high-risk groups, you cannot hold any TCS foods without temperature control.

If you do use this method, you will need to be very confident in your processes and the temperature monitoring skills of your staff.

A few suggestions to help minimize the risk are:

  • Can you display less food and quickly replenish from refrigerated cold storage or hot hold storage?
  • Can you set a removal and replacement time of 30 minutes or an hour?
  • If you are hosting a buffet at a wedding, for example, and you do not have access to a cooler unit, try using a covered ice-bed (large amounts of crushed or cubed ice) as it is a great way to lower temperatures when food is displayed; it’s also visually appealing to the customer if done correctly. Again, make sure you regularly check temperatures and replace if the food is above 41°F.

Key Point

Ask yourself a few questions.

  • Would you personally eat a prawn that has been on display for 6 hours without any temperature control?
  • Would you eat buffalo wings that have been on display for 4 hours without any temperature control?

We have discussed how quickly pathogenic bacteria can multiply. Again, would you eat that prawn??

As a company, we believe the risks to food safety and your business reputation are too high.



In this section, we are going to look at your front of house operation and how this can also be a major factor in preventing foodborne illness. You are going to hear the phrase cross-contamination quite a lot.

Most of your staff may be very experienced and understand the dangers. However, it is an area that traditionally employs many part-time and short-term staff who may not be aware of these dangers and we are going to highlight the main risks to food safety that you need to be aware of, and also a few that you may not have considered.

Setting a Table

It’s an area you may never have considered to be a risk to food safety. However, remember cross-contamination and how hands can be the perfect “vehicles of contamination”!

When setting a table, staff must hold the silverware by the handle. Never touch any part of the silverware that comes into contact with the food.

A good option to reduce the chances of cross-contamination is to wrap the silverware with a napkin.


All glassware should be handled by holding the middle, bottom, or stem. Staff should never touch the top of the glass where people will drink from.

Also, never carry a stack of glasses or cups. Use a tray or rack and remember: do not touch the top of the glass or cup when setting the table.

Table Service

Now that the staff has set the table safely, let’s have a look at table service.

When serving food, always hold a plate underneath or by the outer edge.

Never put a thumb on the top of the plate, (the food contact surface), or in the food. It doesn’t look good and you can easily transfer pathogenic bacteria and cross-contaminate the entire plate of food.

It’s likely that staff may have just cleared a table and touched food debris. If they then touch the food contact surface, they will cross-contaminate the entire plate of food that is being served. These may seem like simple steps; however, they reduce the risks of cross-contamination significantly!

If you serve dinner rolls, make sure that staff never use their bare hands, only use tongs or gloves. And remember, they must never touch ready-to-eat food with their bare hands.


And a final point is an area that is often overlooked, and that is ice. Never use a glass or your bare hands to scoop ice. Always use tongs or an ice scoop.


The next area to consider is self-service and buffets. This is probably the main front-of-house danger area where food safety can fail.

You may have done everything possible to produce very safe food, and then you let the customer near the food!

Remember most customers are not aware of the type of training we receive in the food industry and are unaware of the risks of cross-contamination.

Don’t panic or stop offering self-service areas, as you can put some simple steps in place to minimize the risks.

The Golden Rules are:

  • Accurately label the food to avoid customer confusion. You do not want the customer putting the food back in the service area.
  • Make sure you provide enough serving utensils to ensure customers do not touch the food.
  • Also, place the utensils in the food with handles above the rim and facing the customer.
  • Immediately replace utensils that have been used across different food products. Especially between cooked, chilled, and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Do not allow customers to re-use or refill their plates. Always have enough plates available and offer to swap for a new plate.
  • If you have ice available, make sure you have plenty of ice scoops.
  • A good idea to keep in mind while clearing tables is to make sure staff offer to remove dirty plates and silverware and explain there are clean ones available at the service counter.
  • Many buffets also have staff on station to serve the high-risk foods, and only allow the customer to choose their own low-risk foods. It will appear more helpful and professional while allowing staff to control what is happening.


In any type of self-service area, you should label the food available. Customers need to be able to quickly and easily identify what the food is. It also reduces the risk of cross-contamination by customers who decide they don’t want food, and then put it back.

A suggestion is to also add any allergenic information. This gives an allergy sufferer renewed confidence in your operation.

Staff should also be aware of key ingredients if they help with serving food.


Many self-service food companies will prepare food at their main production kitchen, and then transport the food to a function. For example, a wedding function or an outdoor event.

This is perfectly acceptable; however, you need to put in place strict processes to ensure food is not exposed to temperature and time abuse. Especially if the function is a distance from the production kitchen.

Detailed below are some of the key requirements:

  • Food should be packed and transported in food-grade, insulated containers with sealable lids or covers.
  • Only one type of food or dish per container. Do not mix food products.
  • A label must be attached detailing use-by date including disposal time, reheating, and service instructions.
  • Delivery vehicles should be designed for food deliveries. Do not use the trunk of someone’s car!
  • The temperature of the food needs to be monitored, especially if the delivery time is long. As a manager, you need to be confident that you can temperature control the food at the correct level from the production kitchen to the delivery point.
  • Is there adequate and suitable storage for the food at the venue or function?
  • Is there equipment to cold hold, hot hold, reheat, or even cook, depending on the type of event?
  • Is there adequate safe, drinking water, for dishwashing and handwashing?
  • Are there adequate garbage containers to safely store food waste?

This may seem like a lot of points to consider, however, think of the dangers of cooking and then serving at a function that could be 5, 10, or 20 miles away. Think of the chances of cross-contamination, and time & temperature abuse, and look at how you can reduce the risks.


Many offices, public buildings, hospitals, and schools, have vending machines dispensing food such as sandwiches.

If you have any machines in your operation, you need to treat them as you would with any other food product. In addition, many sandwiches, if not all, will include TCS foods.

We have detailed below some of the key guidelines:

  • Make a daily check of shelf-life dates. Any products that contain TCS foods should have a use-by date.
  • If the date has expired, throw it away immediately.
  • Machines holding TCS foods, for example, sandwiches, must operate at temperatures of 41°F or lower.
  • Train staff on how to monitor, and where to record temperatures.
  • If the temperature has risen above 41°F, you must destroy the sandwiches.
  • If the temperature does rise, contact the supplier of the machines.
  • Ensure that you have a maintenance contract, and regular, planned service that is part of the contract. Ask who cleans the machines?

Staff needs to be aware of the danger of incorrect temperatures and shelf-life dates.