How To Keep Catering Food Warm | Top 7 Ways Explained

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How To Keep Catering Food WarmImagine serving well-cooked dishes to your guests only to get feedback that the food is cold!

No matter whether you just started the business or running it for ages, it’s like a nightmare for all the caterers.

So, whenever you’re assigned with preparing foods for an event, big or small, make a plan before starting it.

Cooking food ahead of time would be more appropriate if you can keep it warm in the right way! If you have no clue how it works, then no worries! We are here to guide you. Not only will you be learning how to keep catering food warm but also all the reasons why it’s important.

Why Do You Need To Keep Food Warm?

Basically, two reasons.

Cold food wouldn’t taste appetizing except for some.

And secondly, it helps in preventing bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella Enteritidis, and Campylobacter. Because this is the vital one, let’s talk about it more.

FDA says that these microorganisms can grow fast on perishable foods when they fall into the “danger zone”. This zone indicates the temp between 40°F and 140°F. So, the dishes should be placed either somewhere very cold (that’s 40°F or below), or somewhere hot (that’s 140°F or above). 

Since it’s the catering food, you have to opt for the latter. And in that case, the food can be safely held hot for around 2 to 4, or in some cases 6 hours. A longer than this might still work to develop bacteria.

Once you leave it outside, the safe holding time would be 2 hours at room temperature, or 1 hour at 90°F to 139°F. 

So, let’s know what are the most perishable items are-

  • Meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Cooked rice, veggies, and pasta.
  • Dairy products and tofu.
  • Fruits and veggies; fresh, peeled or cut.

Different Ways To Keep Food Warm For A Long Time

1. Chafing Dishes

Chafing Dishes

Chafer is an insulated utensil set made of stainless steel and disposable aluminum. Such a set includes several parts and layers that work to keep the food warm. There’s a metal stand that elevates the tray and provides space for keeping the heat source underneath.

The heat source can be electric, wick fuel, or gel fuel. It offers 2 to 6 hour burning times. Over the tray, a deep metal water pan is placed that holds water to be heated. On top of that, a food pan is stacked without touching the other pan. Lastly, there’s a lid that does the job of covering the food.

When the water evaporates, it distributes the steam equally across the bottom of the food pan. And with the lid covered, it preserves the food while maintaining a constant temperature and keeping it moist.

This is how the chafer keeps the dishes warm.

Anyway, we suggest you cook the dishes up to at least 160°F before transferring them to the chafer. It would help make the chafer deliver an ideal temperature of around 140°F. Plus, adding hot water can help speed up the heat level.


  • Ideal for a large amount of food for buffet-style events.
  • Simple setup process.
  • Maintains consistent temperature.
  • Warming time- 2 to 6 hours.

2. Hot Boxes

Hot Boxes

Hotbox is a big suitcase-like appliance made of hard plastic. It has tray stacks inside for placing foods and wheels outside for transportation. A primary advantage of the hotbox is that- it reduces the amount of cooking gas by up to 50%.

To make it work, both the box and the catering food have to be pre-heated at first. Slide a hot water pan into the bottom rack for around 30 minutes with the door closed. This would add humidity inside.

Meanwhile, heat the food at 350°F for 45 minutes. After the food is ready, remove the water pan from the box and slide the hot food tray there for 20 minutes. This would help keep the dishes and food item warm even up to 170°F. 

If the catering food involves pizza, lasagna, nuggets, patty, empanada, cookies, cupcakes or muffin, concession, or other food items, then a hotbox would be suitable for you.

Although the food can be kept warm for at least 4 hours, it can go longer for the denser items. For instance, lasagna is denser than nuggets so the warming time for lasagna would be longer.


  • Ideal for dishes such as pizza, lasagna, nuggets, and cookies.
  • Suitable for confined places like caravans, yacht parties, and small weddings.
  • Maintains consistent temperatures.
  • Warming time- at least 4 hours.

3. Insulated Bags

Insulated Bags

Such bags don’t have any heat source. Instead, they work by holding and maintaining the heat for around 2 to 3 hours even up to 140°F.

The bags are designed with multilayered insulation comprising nylon exterior and reflective aluminum interior. They have an external layer, a lining, and a middle layer that work to trap the heat inside. Speaking of which, the core is the essential one made of foam. The denser and thicker the foam is, the better the insulation will be.

They mainly measure 22 by 13 by 16 inches and are extremely useful for small businesses that involve providing one dish at an event. The food can be lasagna, meat, vegetables, or any casserole dishes. It would work even better when the dishes are wrapped in tin foil.

The combination of interior reflective insulation and foil would make the dish retain its original temperature, moisture, and flavors.


  • Great for small catering businesses.
  • Perfect for different casserole dishes.
  • Delivers constant insulation.
  • Warming time- 2 to 3 hours.

4. Cooler


Cooler is mainly insulated with plastic or foam containing millions of air bubbles. This helps stop the heat from moving through the walls and escaping. As a result, the catering food stays warm for a longer period while the heat remains trapped inside.

But you have to take some steps before adding your food.

First, pour hot water (below 180°F) into the cooler and cover it for an hour or two. After that, tip out the water and dry it. Fill the empty area with hot wet towels and place the foods wrapped in aluminum foil on top. Not only does it provide better insulation but also protects the cooler from heat damage.

To maximize the performance, we would suggest you add some hot bricks or water bottles. They are packed with efficient thermal energy to keep the food hotter. When using bricks, make sure to cover them with tin foil and heat them in the oven at 325°F for about 15 minutes.

You can also add different heat sources like warming some wheat packs in the microwave. These can be used as hot packs in the cooler.

Cooler would be more suitable if you have foods that wouldn’t get stodgy. These may include stews, briskets, baked beans, mashed potatoes, or any casserole dishes. Once you properly turn the cooler into a hotbox, the dishes can stay warm up to 140°F for 4 to 6 hours.

Overall, a cooler is great for resting meat as it lets you jump to store meat for outdoor barbeque.


  • Ideal for small and semi-big parties.
  • Right for a variety of dishes.
  • Circulate consistent insulation while trapping the heat.
  • Warming time- 4 to 6 hours.

5. Microwave Oven And Toaster Oven

Microwave Oven And Toaster Oven

Leaving your catering food inside the oven on low would be both efficient and convenient.

Many ovens have a warm setting that does the job. This makes the interior temperature around 170°F to 200°F so that it keeps the dishes warm while preventing bacteria buildup.

In case your appliance doesn’t have this, then set it to 200°F or 250°F. This would ensure the food remains hot for 2 hours. However, just make sure the food doesn’t sit in the oven for more than 2 hours.

You can also keep the aluminum foil on top of the dishes when placing them in the oven. It would prevent moisture from getting out and keep the dishes juicy.

While such ovens would be appropriate for larger dishes, you can use a toaster oven for small appetizers, dips, bread, or pizza. All you have to do is, adjust it to the ‘Bake’ setting and at 140°F. This will bring the toaster oven up to that particular temp and keep the food warm.


  • Perfect for home parties.
  • Suitable for different dishes.
  • Keeps the temperature ideal.
  • Warming time- shouldn’t be over 2 hours.

6. Electric Blanket

Electric Blanket

An electric blanket would be just right for burger buns and bread rolls. It just has to be placed with the food into a metal container. Make sure the food is wrapped with aluminum foil to keep it safe and efficiently warm. Also, don’t forget to turn the blanket on.

Such blankets use a heating element or insulated wire that’s inserted into the fabric. Once it’s plugged in, the blanket starts to heat which consequently helps keep the food warm. The food can be left warm for around 2 hours, while it provides temperatures up to 145°F or more. 


  • Perfect for small events or home parties.
  • Right for buns, bread rolls, or any other white foods.
  • Keeps the food warm consistently.
  • Warming time- 2 hours.

7. Heat Lamps

Heat Lamps

Great for small portion items like chicken nuggets or French fries.

A heat lamp consists of one or more rows of light bulbs inside a metal housing. It works by producing heat through thin tungsten wire within the bulb. As soon as reflectors in the housing intensify, it distributes heat to the food.

A big advantage of these lamps is that they deliver steady heat patterns. So, there wouldn’t be any cold spots. You just have to make sure the lamps are placed appropriately.

If you’re using a 250-watt bulb, hang them around 8 inches above the plate while keeping the food at 140°F. If it’s a 350-watt bulb, then the right distance would stand at 12 inches. The lamps would be ideal if you want to keep the food warm for around 2 to 4 hours.


  • Ideal for commercial use.
  • Right for fried items mostly.
  • Ensure consistent heat patterns.
  • Warming time- 2 to 4 hours.

Safety Tips When Keeping Catering Food Warm

  1. Some warmers may not hold food at over 120°F. Hence, check the specifications and user reviews to know how hot they can get. The warmer has to be able to hold food at over 140°F.
  2. Always keep the food covered. Not only will it maintain the temperature but prevent contaminants as well.
  3. Make sure to monitor food temps often by using the appropriate thermometer.
  4. If any perishable foods have been left out at below 135°F for more than 4 hours, then discard them ASAP. Even reheating them won’t work since bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus become resistant to heat.
  5. Don’t mix freshly cooked dishes with the ones that are already being held to cater otherwise it would result in cross-contamination.
  6. You shouldn’t rely only on the temp display of your equipment. Better to place a thermometer inside the appliance that can act as an extra safety measure.
  7. Keep the thermometer clean and calibrated often.

Final Words

Catering food is something very delicate. Even a tiny careless move can make anyone sick. 

But when you know how to keep catering food warm the right way, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. Because, the dishes will not be only warm, well-cooked, and flavorful but safe to consume as well.

And as we have added a couple of techniques here, it would be easier for you to use them depending on your convenience.

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