How to Keep Food Cold For A Big Group

How to Keep Food Cold Professional Caters Methods and Top Tips

Tailgates, backyard barbecues, family reunions, (See how To Plan A Big Family Reunion) or watching the big game, or just a party with a large group of friends, there are plenty of opportunities to gather for celebrations. But what’s the best way to keep your food like potato salad cold, creamy and fresh?

For restaurants and other businesses that rely on self-serve food, coolers keep foods at safe temperatures. However, with the cold salads and hot foods of buffets and salad bars, these may not be enough. Especially if you are running a buffet at a large picnic for the family. Maybe you just want to keep your kid’s lunch bag cold.

As caterers we have our primary ways of keeping the food cold – Ice in coolers, covering our food so it doesn’t heat up, stirring the food to even out any additional hot spots, and refrigerating before serving.

Professional Caters and Chefs do have food-safe methods to keep food at a safe temperature both hot (see how professionals keep food warm) and cold.

We also have some top tips you can use to keep food warm at home party or a big group.

What Is the Temperature Danger Zone for Food

Before anything else, let us get into the basics first. The U.S. Department of Agriculture stated that bacteria grow rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40 and 140 °F. In other words, if your food has an internal temperature between 40 to 140 °F, it easily grows and accumulates bacteria in as little as 20 minutes. 

For chilled food, it is important to keep its proper temperature. Keeping it cold will slow down the growth of bacteria. Food that contains too much moisture (perishable food) and is placed at a favorable temperature for bacteria tends to easily spoil. You can tell if the food is spoiled by changes in the taste and texture and the development of unpleasant odors. That is why it is important for you to follow safety protocols and keep the food in a proper way and do not be afraid to use an appliance thermometer or temperature probe.

5 Ways Professional Caterers Keep Food Cold

Here are some practical ways that caterers keep the food at a safe temperature for a big crowd or gathering:

Using Coolers

Choose the right cooler for the job of keeping cold food in the safe temperature zone, there are so many varieties available from very specialized commercial coolers to the more common yeti cooler.

This is the best and easiest way to keep a food item cold in any event, outdoor or indoors. Though there are several types of coolers that you can choose from, make sure to get the right and functional cooler for you.

A metal cooler is often used with block ice would be best if you need a strong or stackable cooler that will not damage. These were very common in the years before plastics took over the market because they have better thermal insulation properties than metal. Non-professional caterers often use this if they have few cold items to keep and use a frozen water bottle if large block ice is not available.

Metal Cooler
Metal Ice bin

On the other hand, fiberglass coolers are great choices and they were the next step in cooler evolution. They are pretty good. While plastic or styrofoam coolers. Styrofoam coolers are often called an insulated container and are very cheap and I used these in my commercial pasta business for food delivery on really hot summer days, and are ideal if you want to keep cool or frozen food safe. Keeping food cool with a yeti cooler (drinks cooler) is probably one of the most common ways to control food temperature, and you can have a separate cooler for different food types, maybe keeping drink separate from meat for example.

Using loose ice with work for a couple of hours, but using a big ice block or frozen gel packs will result in better ice retention keeping food well below room temperature longer. Modern ones will also have a drain plug for the ice melt.

To use it properly and to keep the food cold for several hours, wrap the cooler using aluminum foil to keep the temperature cooler longer but if it is really hot this will reflect heat and make it a barrier for warmer exterior temperatures to get in. This is a good tip, since the aluminum foil can reflect up to 95% of the outside heat. 

Some would store the ice and food at the same time. While some will store the ice in the cooler first and the food after. 

Some coolers that professional caterers use usually come with thermometers, shelves, handles, wheels, and drainage plugs. They are usually electric types that can be plugged into the car batteries, which is great if you plan to bring your food in long-distance travels.

Using long-lasting ice 

There are different types of ice that you can use.

Long-lasting ice usually comes in huge blocks, which are heavier yet melts slowly.

Can you use dry ice to keep food cold? – Yes it is very cold and will even freeze food. Dry ice found in grocery stores can also be a good option. This is much colder than regular ice cubes and takes a much longer time to melt, too. Know that dry ice is cold at -109 °F, compared to the usual ice cubes that only need to be frozen at 32°F. 

Take note that dry ice can crack and burn your skin due to its extreme cold. That is why it is best to wrap it with a newspaper or cloth. To prevent your food from being frozen. Do not place food directly in contact with the dry ice because it freezes whatever is directly next to it.

However, if you do not have any of the ice blocks or dry ice, a bag of large ice cubes would do.

Dry Ice
Dry Ice

Pre-chill the plates and cooler

Before serving the food, salads, or dips for everyone, take a little extra time to toss your serving plates and bowls inside the freezer or refrigerator to keep them cool while you are preparing whatever is needed. And as you finish preparing, the pre-chilled serving dishes will add extra coolness to the food. 

Another thing to do is to pre-chill the cooler(s). You can place a thermal bag or ice packs inside hours before the scheduled event or meal. Ice packs are better than bagged ice since they are reusable.

Also, if you have extra space, you can place the whole cooler inside the fridge or freezer. It may sound silly but it will help the ice packs last longer.

Making use of running water

Wherever you are, outdoors or indoors, there will definitely be running water in the area, right? A cool stream that is fresh running off from melting snow is even perfect for this.

Due to the evaporation of water, running water can make your food cooler than usual. To do this, you have to keep your food in a sealed or closed container to prevent it from being spoiled. It will also prevent the water from seeping into the food. For bottled drinks, you won’t have any problem since you can just simply put it down the ground with the flowing water. 

Covering the food

While your food is pre-served, it is best to keep it cold by just simply covering it. This is what caterers do when there is no other way to keep the food cold. Covering the food using aluminum foil or a dish towel will work for up to a couple of hours. With that, it will keep the cold temperature from escaping by preventing the sunlight from hitting directly to the food.

How To Keep Food Cold Without Electricity

How do you keep food cold outside?

Use a Zeer Pot

The zeer pot is a traditional cooler, but quite effective, they work on the evaporative method and are still in use in parts of the world today. It consists of two pots, one bigger than the other. The smaller pot is placed inside the larger one. With the space between filled with sand and cold water. Food is placed inside the inner pot and the sand is filled with water. This works and if you have a drain bung in the larger pot you can replace the water making it last longer.

How do you keep food cold without a cooler? – ways to store food below room temperature are

  • an Evaporative Refrigerator
  • Store Food Underground
  • Use a Cool Stream Nearby
  • Make an Ice Box or House!
  • Make a Coal or Charcoal Cooler

20 Ways to Keep Food Cold when Home Catering For A Large Group

First, let’s start with some cold food handling tips to ensure your buffet food doesn’t fall into the danger zone:

  • Chill your food before packing it into an insulated lunch bag, ice chest or any traditional coolers.
  • Take out food from the fridge as close to packing or serving as possible.
  • Use insulated accessories to hold cold food at 40℉ | 4.44 ℃ or below which is the safe upper limit
  • Keep food covered where at all possible
  • Use plastic cooler mats under food
  • Use ice trays under food cold
  • Keep everything out of the sun including food and food storage containers
  • Do not leave anything in a hot car get them into cold air
  • Drinks can go into an ice bath
  • Use old frozen water bottle(s) as extra ice packs.

1. Coolers and Insulated Picnic Bags

Thermal Bags
Thermal Bags

Do thermal bags keep food cold? – Yes they do – especially if you put a frozen water bottle in or a zip lock back of ice.

There is a great range of options today from picnic backpacks that are insulated thought to coolers of all shapes and sizes with wheels, and stackable ones, that make car loading and keeping food cool easier today.

Soft sides on an insulated folding picnic bags or baskets and incuding soft-sides on insulated cold bags are great for transporting cubed ice and drinks to a party or large event. There is even a cooler backpack that can to carry up to 32 soda tins or cans. So between a thermal tote bag, insulated lunch bag, delivery bag, wine bag, backpack or a wheel yeti cooler, you are good to go.

2. Do Not Take Out Dishes Till You need To Serve

3. Put Leftover Food Straight Away when finished

4. Start with smaller Serving Portion sizes

5 Wrap Your Food with Tin or Aluminum Foil

6. Keep All Food and Cooling Devices Out of the Sun

7. Use Frozen Bottles as extra Ice Packs

In advance freeze some bottles of water, because they are big chunks of ice they keep cool for quite a long time. Put them inside your insulated backpack or tote. Also ss the bottles defrost you will get a nice supply of chilled water to drink.

8. Use Soft Ice Packs

Ice is heavy – so do not carry more than you need. Modern thermal ice packs are extremely efficient and quite light compare to big ice blocks. Also, they do not leak or suffer from ice melt, yet they are smaller enough to cool a lunch box.

I really like soft icepacks, and you can buy them in many different sizes.

9. Use Block Ice

If you are loading a cooler with block ice – place it in the bottom and it will last longer. Another good tip is to place it inside a plastic bag and any water that melts will not spoil the food.

Block Ice
Block Ice

Tricks for Using Ice (cubes and home made frozen water cubes)

Cubed ice is a good hole or gap filler and that way will give you extra help in making sure everything stays cold.

How as the ice is small it will melt quicker and so it can also be messy. If you don’t want ice melting and water in your cooler, put the cubes into a leakproof plastic zip lock bags which you can usually refreeze for another time when you get home or your family party is finished.

10. Organize Your Cooler

Organizing your ice chest or plastic cooler will make sure that your dishes, sides, salads transport well and stay below room temperature safely.

  • Coolers and insulated bags and totes should be kept shut or closed until you are ready to serve so the warm air does not enter. Food and drinks will stay cool much longer if warm air isn’t being let in.
  • Use separate coolers for beverages and perishable foods
  • Coolers that are full keep foods colder longer, so pack coolers as well as you can. YOu can also put in some cold towel or frozen newspaper on the top if there is spare space.
  • Pack block ice on the bottom and place perishable chilled items on top.
Insulated Food Containers
Insulated Food Containers

11. Insulated Food Containers For Keeping Side Dishes Cool

There are some insulated picnic storage solutions that are no-nonsense and will be perfect for transporting. They can also be used as serving dishes when needed and they suit all types of events from tailgating to a group picnic. Some good brands are Cool Touter Outers and Pinnacle Insulated Food containers.

Keeping Food Cold For a Picnic, Family reunion buffet or a tailgate party is simple if you with our top 20 tips and ideas above.

From tailgating to backyard barbecues, there are multiple occasions when it\’s easy to throw a few pounds of cold pasta salad in the good o’ icebox, then down it all with some light beer.  Now you know how to keep cool as a professional cater. You can also use these techniques for camping, Picnics etc.

Catering for a crowd is a big area – and we cover some great idea on how to set up your big group party here.