Food safety for the office potluck

No matter the location, nothing brings people together like food. The office is no exception.  When food is brought in for workers, most will take a moment to partake in the meal, or at the very least, investigate what eats that have been provided for them.  As employers increasingly require their teams to be present at the office, it's a perfect time to revisit the dos and don'ts of serving food at the workplace.

A shot of a folding table crowded with various food set up in containers on top of it.  All of the containers are open and the food is on display.

The vast majority of employees aren't opposed to being treated to food while at work.  Knowing what exactly what to feed them is another discussion altogether and something that might not ever gain consensus.  Even in a post Covid world, it's almost a guarantee there'll be at least one employee willing to bring a casserole-looking thing to the office potluck or party.  It may not always be advisable to consume what's brought in and laid out in the open for dozens of gawking breathing, non-mask wearing adults to peer over.  If you feel inclined to bring in something to the office party, here are a few tips on how to do it in the most hygienic and safety conscious way possible. 

Handling and Preparation

Perhaps the simplest and one of the most important steps is hand-washing.  Anyone intending to eat or handle food should wash their hands thoroughly.  It's not just about the optics of others thinking your hands are clean.  Germs, bacteria, and even fecal matter can be present on people's hands.  

In addition to clean hands, it's equally important to ensure all utensils and surfaces used the preparation and serving are washed and  sanitized. 

Catered food, boxed meals, or individually wrapped items are best.  When in doubt, order out.  Catering is a much better option than a potluck as it allows professionals to handle the preparation of food in order to limit the number of people coming in contact with it.  

Buffet lines seem like a great idea in theory, but in the office environment, they come with added risks as each employee would need to handle utensils and stand over the food in order to serve themselves.  This can be solved for by designating a few to servers for each station.  

Temperature Control

Food that's not immediately being prepared or served should be kept covered and maintained at the appropriate temperature.   

Keep cold food cold and hot food hot.  To help reduce the chances of bacteria from forming, never leave food out at room temperature for more than two hours as you don't want your dish to become a petri dish.  Food intended to be chilled should be left on ice or refrigerated.  Food meant to be served should be kept on kerosene burners or hotplates.  Any food that left at room temperature in excess of two hours should be thrown away.  


A commonly overlooked part of food preparation is the cleanup.  Once a potluck is over, leftover food should never be left at room temperature for more than two hours.  Anything left outside for this length of time should be discarded refrigerated or thrown in the trash.  

It's not unheard of for a brave individual to notice food on the breakroom table, and unaware of its duration, to consume it, potentially exposing themselves to foodborne illness.  This is also true of food left in the breakroom refrigerator which too, poses the risk of illness as it may likely not be covered completely, allowing air to enter the food and potentially create an unsafe situation.  Any food remaining from an office gathering should be either discarded or stored at a safe temperature with the intention for it to be consumed immediately.  


Potlucks are a great way for teams to engage while enjoying food curated by their colleagues.  By understanding and taking the right precautions to safely handle the food, employees can ensure the success of their next event and the likelihood of future ones.