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Buffets are a popular choice at events such as weddings, christenings, birthday parties and wakes. They are a convenient alternative to a sit-down meal as they allow people to pick their own food from the selection on offer, which reduces costs as serving staff are not usually required and it makes event planning significantly easier.
Rather than trying to take your guests’ orders in advance and hope they remember what they chose on the day, a buffet provides something for everyone. This is especially useful for large events or children’s birthday parties where you may be concerned that there will be some ‘picky eaters’ on the guest list.
Buffets can be made up of a selection of hot and cold food or may sometimes consist of only ‘finger food’ such as sandwiches, crisps and sausage rolls. Some people may want a more extravagant choice of items on their buffet and instead of spending time preparing the food themselves, they opt for an outside caterer.
Whether you would like to spend time making a buffet by yourself for your special occasion or you decide to call in a professional, it is vital that hygiene practices are followed to prevent any cross-contamination, any problems that could arise from allergens and, of course, that the food is safe for consumption.
Any commercial enterprise that provides food to the public has to comply with certain legislation around safe practice. This includes all kinds of professional caterers including small businesses, large chains or even those who prepare food for sale in their own kitchen, such as cake makers.
If you are preparing a buffet yourself, you may not be professionally trained in the safe handling and preparation of food. To save anyone becoming ill from eating spoiled food or coming into contact with allergens, it is worth familiarising yourself with the simple principles of food safety.
What are the risks of buffets?
Buffets can pose several risks due to the amount/range of food on offer and the tendency for food to be left out at room temperature for long periods of time. The ‘self-serve’ style of buffet dining also introduces the varying levels of personal hygiene that diners may have – once one patron has touched the food or handled utensils with unwashed hands, suddenly everyone else can be put at risk.
It is important to follow basic hygiene rules before, during and after preparing a buffet, as well as during service. Any time food is prepared or served in an unsanitary environment, bacteria can breed which can make people unwell.
Common bacteria that can be found within buffet food or in serving areas include:
- E. coli (this might be found lurking inside your lettuce or soft cheese).
- Salmonella (common in undercooked chicken or eggs).
- Listeria (this can breed quickly in pre-packed food such as sandwiches or bagged salads and is common in deli meats).
What hygiene practices should be followed?
High standards of hygiene are required so food that is prepared, cooked and served is fit to eat.
The 4 C’s refer to the main areas that you need to think about to ensure good levels of food hygiene:
Food preparation areas need to be cleaned regularly, including sides, sinks and floors. All cooking and food prep utensils need to be clean and fit for purpose.
It is often best to follow a ‘clean as you go’ approach as you prepare food. During buffet prep you may well be handling lots of different types of food including meat, raw vegetables, fruit, raw fish and desserts. Food areas should be cleaned down and disinfected between tasks; this is most important after handling raw food.
Sanitisers and disinfectants are useful to kill bacteria and viruses in the kitchen. Any disinfectants that are used in the kitchen need to meet BS EN standards and be designated as ‘food safe’. Disinfectants are best used on an area that looks visibly clean (wiped down first). Sanitisers can be used as part of a two-step approach; first spray and wipe the areas to remove dirt or grease, once it is visibly clean re-spray and re-wipe to disinfect the surface.
Washing up should be done at a hot temperature, preferably in a dishwasher. When washing manually, always use hot water and an appropriate washing-up liquid. Leaving plates and pans to air-dry is most hygienic and any tea towels that are used should be clean.
Buffets often contain a mixture of hot and cold food. You may be cooking food to be used as sandwich fillings or making sides like jacket potatoes, pasta or a fish dish. Food needs to be cooked thoroughly. This is most important for chicken, pork or food made from minced meat such as burgers. It is vital that these food items are never served pink in the middle as this is a common cause of food poisoning.
If you are reheating food for your buffet, ensure it is cooked thoroughly. This kills the harmful bacteria that might have grown since it was first cooked.
The reheating of rice is a common cause for concern for people as uncooked rice contains Bacillus cereus, a bacteria linked to food poisoning. Rice needs to be cooked thoroughly and served straight away without spending long at room temperature. If you are having a cold rice dish on your buffet, cool it down as quickly as possible after cooking (within one hour) and store it in the fridge for up to one day. Do not reheat rice more than once.
Cooked food needs to be held at 63 degrees C. If you are serving or displaying it below this (for example at room temperature), it should only be left there for two hours. Food that has not been used within two hours should be discarded.
The two-hour rule states that any perishables on buffets should only be left out for a maximum of two hours.
Chilling food in an appropriate way can help to stop harmful bacteria from growing. Foods that will require chilling include cold meats, salads and food that has a ‘use-by’ date. It is important that food is stored correctly, labelled and that you regularly check use-by dates. Food that has been cooked that you intend to chill should be cooled down quickly and not kept at room temperature for too long.
Cross-contamination usually refers to the spread of bacteria between foods and surfaces. Bacteria can spread when raw food touches prepared food. It can also be spread through the sharing of kitchen equipment and utensils, for example if you use a board and knife to slice a raw chicken breast then use the same board and knife to chop up some salad items. This can be eliminated by having designated equipment for certain items and regular washing.
Cross-contamination is also linked to poor hygiene – bacteria can be spread by hands, gloves and tea towels. Hands should be washed regularly, gloves changed between preparing foodstuffs and dirty tea towels should never be used to wipe down plates or food.
Anyone who is preparing food for a buffet needs to understand the 4 C’s of food hygiene. The first three are often ‘common sense’ especially to people who cook a lot at home, but many people fail to understand the pitfalls of cross-contamination. Information about avoiding cross contamination can be found on the food.gov website.
Other types of cross-contamination to be aware of include allergens or when vegetarian/vegan food is handled with or touches meat.
There are an estimated 2 million people in the UK with a diagnosed food allergy.
To be able to safely prepare food for people, you need to have an understanding of the 14 allergens.
All food businesses are required to provide allergy information by law.
If you know that you are required to prepare buffet items for someone with an allergy, it is important that you use separate chopping boards, knives etc for this and that they do not come into contact with the relevant allergens.
Common food allergies include those to wheat, gluten, eggs and dairy.
It is also important that you check the labels on any ingredients that you are using. Allergens will be clearly labelled in bold and can sometimes be found in unexpected places; foods labelled ‘vegan’, for example, are not always guaranteed to be free from trace elements of dairy or eggs. Ingredients can also change, so remember to check each time you prepare food for someone with an allergy, do not just assume.
If you are preparing buffet items for people with specific dietary requirements, for example vegetarian, vegan or kosher, it is good practice to prepare and store these away from the rest of the buffet food. It is also important to check the ingredients you are using to avoid including anything that is not part of the diet you are catering for.
Some people can have very severe reactions to allergens, so it is very important that you are mindful of this when you prepare, store and serve buffet food.
Tips for safely preparing buffet food
It is highly likely that you are preparing buffet food for a special occasion that people are looking forward to; it may also be a significant event for them. The last thing anyone would want was to become ill from their buffet meal, either due to bacteria on food, dirty surfaces, poor storage, or from incorrect handling of allergens.
Here are a few basic tips to remember when preparing your buffet:
For the kitchen
- Regular handwashing – Hands should be washed thoroughly with soap and water at regular intervals and ALWAYS after using the toilet, touching your hair/face/phone, eating or smoking.
- Long hair must be covered/tied back.
- Areas and equipment should be cleaned and sanitised regularly.
For the buffet guests
- Always wash hands before handling food or eating.
- Try to only handle the food you plan to eat; don’t pick up food items then put them back.
- Avoid coughing or sneezing onto the buffet and do not smoke around the food.
- Use tongs/serving spoons where provided. Replace covers on food once you have served yourself.
- Keep used and dirty crockery and cutlery away from the buffet areas.
- Dispose of rubbish safely in a suitable receptacle (preferably away from the food). Poor disposal of rubbish can cause hazards and attract pests.
If food is prepared in a different venue to the one where the buffet will be served it is important that it is covered, packaged and stored in a way that ensures it will not become unfit to eat.
Food that requires refrigeration must be kept cool during transit. Hot food must be kept at a suitable temperature; an insulated bag may help with this.
If you are transporting buffet food in a non-commercial vehicle (or non-food industry vehicle), it should also meet certain requirements.
It is better to lay out smaller portions and leave the rest of the food in the fridge or hot food in the oven, then top up as required.
Do not add new food on top of old, instead, once a tray has become low, just remove it and replace with fresh stock.
Remember bacteria can travel easily from hands, so provide enough serving tongs and spoons to avoid the temptation guests may have to handle the buffet by hand.
Have a designated area for dirty plates and rubbish that is away from the buffet table. Encourage guests not to hang around the serving areas and to use waste receptacles provided.
Try to provide covers for food, especially if serving outdoors, to prevent flies landing on the buffet items.
Do i need a food hygiene certificate to serve buffet food?
Anyone who handles or prepares food must have an up-to-date food hygiene certificate to ensure they know how to work safely. In any premises where food is prepared and stored, it is very important that staff have had training in all areas of food hygiene and can demonstrate that they understand the principles of food safety.
Most commercial kitchens will require their staff to have a food hygiene certificate in addition to their on the job training. The certificate encompasses all of the basics any food handler needs to work safely and hygienically and it is recommended that those who wish to pursue a career in catering gain at least a Level 2 certificate in food hygiene.
Food businesses must also use HACCP procedures. A detailed overview can be found on our blog.
If you are running a catering business from home you will need to register with your local authority and be prepared for a visit from a member of the environmental health team to inspect your premises.
You will need to understand the fundamentals of food hygiene, have a sanitary and safe space to prepare food and be able to provide allergy information to your customers.