Editor’s note: This recent post by the Food Safety Education Staff of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service can be found on the www.FoodSafety.gov website.

Since catering is one of the largest expenses in a wedding budget, couples can often find themselves struggling to satisfy their visions of a dream wedding and finicky guests. One of the ways couples can please guests and keep costs low is by doing the catering themselves.

Aside from the rings, the dress and the bar service, estimates for food service from caterers can be enough to force couples to opt for a “staycation” over a honeymoon in an exotic locale. Taking on the challenge of “do it yourself” catering can be a rewarding and memorable experience, and can make room in the budget for a romantic getaway. The key is to follow good food safety guidelines from the U.S. Department Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

In preparation for any big meal, it is a good idea to review the FSIS publication, Cooking for Groups. The pamphlet, also available in Spanish, features guidelines for preparing large quantities of food. Other resources at Foodsafety.gov are available 24/7.

If catering your own wedding adds another task to your already hectic to-do list, then consider hiring a budget-friendly caterer, but not before you ask the tough questions

7 questions to ask prospective caterers
corrected USDA wedding food safety graphic
Choosing a caterer doesn’t have to be stressful. Making delicious food is just one part of the equation. You need to be sure they follow food safety measures so your guests don’t get sick. Here are seven food safety questions to ask your caterer.

Are the staff members certified food handlers? If they are certified, this means the staff is all properly trained on safe food handling.

How do you transport food to the venue? You want to ensure cold foods stay cold and hot foods (pre-prepared), stay hot. If caterers transport unsealed food containers in the same compartment, spillage and cross-contamination may occur. Items containing perishable ingredients like beef can spill onto food dishes containing items like rice and potatoes. Caterers should use sealable containers.

When/where is the food prepared? If the food is prepared off-site, ensure the caterers safely transport the food. If the food is prepared on-site, ensure the caterers have the appropriate tools they need to prepare and serve the food.  Budget conscious couples may choose a venue without a “fully stocked” kitchen. When this happens, communicating this information to the caterer will ensure that they prepare by bringing with multiple knives, serving spoons, cutting boards, and dish towels.

How long after food — especially meat, poultry, seafood and eggs — is cooked is it brought out to guests? Perishable foods should not sit out at room temperature for more than two hours. This will ensure that your guests are served a hot and, more importantly, safe meal.

How long does the buffet remain open and how will the caterer avoid the food entering the “danger zone”? Ask the caterer to provide chafing dishes or warming trays to keep hot foods hot, and ice or other cold source to keep cold foods cold. Otherwise, food may enter the “danger zone,” between 40 and 140°F, where bacteria multiply rapidly. Never leave perishable foods in the “danger zone” for more than two hours; one hour in temperatures above 90°F. After two hours, food that has been sitting out should be replaced with fresh food.

Are there any potential allergens used in the preparation of the food? You should certainly ask your caterer if there are any allergens in the dishes, including nuts, soy, milk, eggs, wheat and fish/shellfish. If there are, guests should be notified in some way.

Do you use a food thermometer to check that food is properly cooked? The answer must be yes! No one – not even a caterer – can tell if meat is properly cooked by its color. They must use a meat thermometer.


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