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Keep Foods at Safe Temperatures

Like most other living things, bacteria need food, warmth, moisture, and time to grow and multiply. In order to prevent bacteria from growing in your food, keep hot foods hot - above 140°F- and cold foods cold - below 40°F.

  • Refrigerate all prepared and leftover foods within two hours. Food can become unsafe if it is held for more than two hours in the 60-125°F range, the zone where bacteria grow most rapidly. Remember to include all time involved during preparation, storage, and serving in determining how long a food has been in that temperature range. For example, holding foods for several hours in an oven with an automatic timer prior to cooking is not safe if the food is in the 60-125° temperature zone for more than two hours.
  • Take care with perishable foods before you get them home. When shopping, pick up the perishable foods as your last stop in the grocery store, and, especially in hot weather, get them home and into the refrigerator quickly. Don't leave them in your car while you run other errands. If you live more than 30 minutes from the store, consider using an ice chest or cooler when you shop.
  • Store all perishable foods such as eggs, meat, and dairy at or below 40°F.
  • Check your refrigerator temperature. It should be between 35-40°F. (The colder food is kept, the less chance bacteria have to grow.)
  • Thaw perishable foods in the refrigerator or under cold running water. If you wish to thaw food more quickly in a microwave, it should be cooked promptly after it thaws.

Cooling Hot Foods
In most cases, prompt cooling and proper refrigeration of foods can hold the number of bacteria down to a safe level.

Small amounts of warm foods may be put into the refrigerator. Speed the cooling of larger quantities of food by putting the food in shallow, uncovered containers.

If you have a large volume of hot food, cool the pan of food in a container of ice water. Stir and replace the ice frequently until the food is warm (about 100°) then refrigerate the food in shallow containers. Set the timer for about 30-45 minutes to remind you to check to see if the food is cooled enough to be refrigerated.

Don't prepare food more than two hours before serving unless you can properly cool it and reheat it.

Don't over pack the refrigerator, for cool air must circulate to keep food safe.

Meals packed to be eaten away from home
Keep foods at safe temperatures when they will be eaten away from home, such as at picnics, potluck dinners, camping trips and packed lunches. If ice is not available, choose foods that will not support bacterial growth, such as nuts, peanut butter, or dried foods.

Discard any perishable foods from picnics or potlucks that have not been kept adequately chilled or heated during serving. "If in doubt, throw it out."

Keep Foods at Safe Temperatures
Keeping foods at safe temperatures is the primary control factor for pathogens associated with inadequate temperature control during refrigeration and hot-holding.
  1. Store all perishable foods at or below 40°F.
  2. Do not prepare food more than 2 hours before serving without plans for proper cooling and reheating.
  3. Keep hot food at or above 140°F.
  4. Refrigerate food in shallow containers within 2 hours of preparation.
  5. Take only foods that can be kept at safe temperatures in carried meals, such as lunch boxes, picnics and potluck dinner.
  6. Use a thermometer to make sure the refrigerator temperature is between 35°F and 40°F.
  7. Thaw perishable foods in the refrigerator, in the microwave oven or under cold running water

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What about those times where I need to take food somewhere, such as a picnic or a sack lunch?
  • What is a safe temperature for food?
  • When I prepare a large pot of soup, what is the best procedure for safely cooling the soup?

    Links to Fact sheets
  • Cooking for Groups
  • How to Pack a Safe Lunch

    Links to more information
  • Pennsylvania State University food safety
  • Food and Nutrition Information Center at USDA
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • U.S. Foodborne Illness Education Information Center
  • U.S. Government Gateway to Food Safety Information
  • Nutrition and Health Information from the US Government Websites
  • USDA Food and Nutrition Services
  • Food Safety and Inspection Service at USDA
  • WSU Cooperative Extension Bulletin Office
  • Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at FDA

    WSU Bulletins
    Click here for a list of Food Safety publications you can order from WSU.


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