Whether it’s a family holiday, a select few for a New Year’s social or just your two favorite neighbors walking over for a winter get-together, you can satisfy a hungry, small group reasonably safely during Covid by making a few special adjustments. And with thoughtful planning, you’ll have time to enjoy your company rather than spending half the night in the kitchen.
But no matter how familiar you are with friends or family, it’s still a calculated risk hosting for a small “crowd” of 8 or less people this season. The fewer guests the better, and you should avoid inviting anyone from out-of-state. Most cases of Covid are contracted from someone we know, rather than from a random stranger at, say, the supermarket. However, it doesn’t have to be too stressful if you follow some simple prep tips, safety guidelines, and easy recipes for feeding a scaled-down winter gathering.
Make The Food Safer
One consideration when feeding a group is proper food safety and sanitation—we’re talking food poisoning prevention now—not Covid-19. It’s critical that the food be heated or chilled quickly and thoroughly because it takes longer for large batches to reach boiling or refrigeration temperatures (think a crockpot of chili containing ground beef or turkey). That’s a simple step for preventing food poisonings like Salmonella, Listeria, or E. Coli. The best way to know if food was heated hot enough to kill harmful bacteria is to gently boil a liquid like turkey soup for 10 minutes or to use a food thermometer for solid food like roast pork, which is also an important step when reheating previously-cooked dishes.
If you’re transporting foods to a family dinner an hour or more away, you must keep hot foods hot or cold foods cold for both the length of the trip and duration of the serving period. Lukewarm temperatures allow bacteria to multiply and spread (think sushi platter, tuna salad, or chicken soup).
The three important internal temperatures and food categories to remember when cooking include the following: eggs and ground meats 160°F; turkey, chicken, and other poultry 165°F; meat steaks, pork, chops, roasts, fish and shellfish 145°F. If hot or cold seafood—think shrimp—has been left or held at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F for 3 or more hours, discard it. A safe and ideal refrigerator setting is 38°F to hinder bacteria growth and spoilage. But remember the additional time required for the middle of the food to drop to that temperature. It’s okay to store food like a holiday ham or turkey outside or in the garage, but only if the temperate is and will consistently stay below 40°F.
Prep area cleanliness is vital when hosting even a small group event. How you handle raw foods and the cleanliness of your work surfaces and hands matter. For example, after preparing raw meat, fish, shellfish or poultry, you must scour the work area and utensils with hot soap and water, Clorox or Lysol spray cleaner, antibacterial wipes, or an inexpensive bleach/water solution.
A 1:32 solution (1/3 cup to 1 gallon of water) of regular household bleach is safe for daily use. Bleach concentrations less than that formula may not be effective. Bleach solutions at concentrations greater than that mix may cause kitchen surfaces corrosion and respiratory irritation in people and pets. Bleach or cleaning spray solutions require 10 minutes of contact time to ensure complete disinfection before rinsing. Proper utensil, faucet/refrigerator/stove/microwave handles, and work surface disinfection kills both foodborne bacteria and viruses from seasonal colds, flu, and Covid-19.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after food prep with raw eggs, meat, poultry or seafood and before beginning a new cooking task to prevent cross contamination such as a transfer from raw shrimp to salad. Handwashing, of course, also helps prevent Covid transmission in the household. Dry your hands with disposable paper towels rather than a reused dishtowel. Another option is to wear disposable gloves when handling any of those raw proteins.
Party Safety Protocals During Covid
Many of us will take the calculated risk to gather over food with a few family or trusted friends this winter, but almost nobody is guaranteed Covid free. Your “group” this season may only consist of another couple. It’s a matter of considering and minimizing the chances of infection for all involved. A few Covid party-planning tips will help keep everyone safer.
You should maintain as much distance as possible between individuals, and that means hosting fewer people than normal, and unfortunately, probably not including the elderly or others at greater risk. Use masks whenever they don’t interfere with eating or drinking. On a mild evening, tell your friends to dress warmly, and you can host a memorable winter social on the back deck or patio around a fire or grill. Shrimp and vegetable shish kebobs are an easy, festive, and individually-portioned choice for winter grilling. Add some holiday lights and music, and your event will be a big hit.
If you must be indoors, crack open some windows to increase airflow throughout the gathering areas—again, asking your guests to bring a sweater or sweatshirt. Be creative with seating arrangements, perhaps setting a second table to space people apart or allow some guests to eat on their laps spaced throughout the living room.
Avoid handshakes, high-fives, hugs, and kisses. Even fist or elbow bumps create unnecessary proximity to each other. Provide a large bottle of hand sanitizer, and ask all guests to apply some upon entering. The next safety consideration is the meal service and food.
The Covid-19 virus causes respiratory illness, and it is primarily transmitted through airborne particles. As of this writing, there is no evidence of food, food containers, or food packaging being associated with transmission of Covid-19, and clothing (think guests’ winter coats) also appears very low risk.
“However,” says Barb Moretti, a party-planning host with 40 years of experience and staff member at the Norwich Inn and Spa, “you should still eliminate touch-point transmission around the meal wherever possible. For instance, rather than using regular silverware, buy the individual plastic-cutlery packets, which include disposable fork, knife, spoon, salt, pepper, and napkin. To find them, just do a quick google search with the key words, ‘Stock-Your-Home-Individually-Wrapped-Plastic-Cutlery.’ Some brands of disposables are even eco-friendly.
“Although it’s not as fancy, don’t use real tableware or flatware this holiday season. Instead buy colorful, high-quality disposable plastic or paper bowls, plates, and cups. Name-label everyone’s cup in advance to avoid mix-ups. Don’t serve barehand foods like chips, popcorn, pretzels, peanuts, candies, and party mix in communal bowls. Opt for individually-portioned bagged snacks and treats like you’d get for a packed lunch.
“Following these and other safety steps greatly reduces the spread of touch-point germs, and you also won’t be left with piles of dirty dishes at the end of the night.”
Editor’s Note: The author is an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, where he teaches nutrition courses in Meal Management and Food Selection & Preparation.