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How to Keep Food Hot When Traveling

How to keep your food hot when traveling to a party or picnic
Keep your food hot when traveling to a party or picnic

Breaking bread together is making a comeback with potlucks, picnics, and parties. Finding the right dish to bring can be a chore, but there's no reason to sacrifice a hot dish out of concern that it won't stay hot.

Here's a quick guide on how to keep food hot while traveling. It includes several generic products (I'm not endorsing any brands) to invest in if planning ahead, as well as a quick DIY hack for keeping food hot in the car when the party's in a couple of hours.

What to Bring to a Potluck

Potluck and picnic dishes can vary from finger foods and desserts, to salads and casseroles. Different factors will determine what you decide to contribute including:

  • time

  • creativity

  • ingredients on hand

  • the season

  • the occasion

  • what everyone else is bringing

  • weather forecast

  • dietary restrictions

My most recent potluck experience was outdoors and the weather determined my contribution. I decided to bring a hot spinach and artichoke dip to keep everyone warm while snacking on veggies.

Hot dips, lasagnas, soups, and mac & cheese are great for comfort and keeping the crowd warm, but only if they're served hot. There's little more disappointing at a potluck than a cold, soggy casserole.

How to Keep Food Hot While Traveling

Thermal Insulated Carrying Case

One product you can buy if you have about $35 and time to order online or run to a store is a thermal insulated carrying case. Much like your local pizza delivery person's case that keeps your slices hot until they get to you, a thermal insulated carrying case will keep your potluck food hot through the car ride. Food delivery companies like DoorDash and GrubHub have invested in these thermal insulated carrying cases as well.

Like food delivery services, you can use a thermal insulated carrying case to keep food hot while traveling.
Like food delivery services, you can use a thermal insulated carrying case to keep food hot while traveling.

Hot Packs

If you're looking for something more affordable or the food dish won't fit in the thermal insulated carrying case, hot packs for food are another option. Similar to ice packs used for first aid, hot packs for food are reusable and heat up in the microwave. They range from about $0.75 to $7 each. They work best to keep the dish hot for hours

when several hot packs are packed under, over, and around the food dish.

hot packs for food keep food hot while traveling.
Similar to ice packs, hot packs for food are handy to keep food hot while traveling.

Slow Cooker / Crockpot

Another option is cooking the meal in a slow cooker, unplugging it, and packing the entire device in the car. Secure the lid tightly to keep the heat in as much as possible. This can be done if there are latches by locking the lid on. If not, pack blankets on top of the slow cooker once it's in the car to keep the lid on and the pot insulated. The slow cooker can be plugged back in and kept on the warm setting if the destination has electricity.

Crockpots or slow cookers can be brought to a party and plugged in if there's electricity.

How to Keep Food Hot After You Arrive

Warming Tray

Similarly, if the destination has electricity, a guest can also bring a warming tray. These are not a new invention; they've been around for a long time. My family continues to use them at holiday get-togethers and they work well to keep the hot dishes hot. Simply place the oven-safe dish on top of the pre-heated warming tray and keep it on until it's time to clean-up.

warming trays keep food hot after traveling
Warming trays are very effective at keeping food hot at a destination with power.

Chaffing Tray & Sternos

Sternos are another "old school" solution for keeping food hot once guests arrive. Sternos require a chaffing dish, food pan, and wire stand.

Set-up the stand wherever the food should be served because once it's hot, it's not going to move easily. Place the chaffing dish on the stand and fill with at least an inch of water. Then, light the sternos according to the package directions. Finally, once the chaffing pan is hot, add the food pan to the water bath. Put the lid over top to keep the food hot and moist.

Sternos and chaffing dishes keep food hot at a party
Sternos and chaffing dishes keep food hot at a party.

DIY Solution

I didn't have any of these items the day I made my dip and I didn't have time to shop for anything either. Instead, I followed these steps to keep my dip hot:

  1. Dampen one large bath towel and about five smaller dish towels. Heat the towels in the dryer for 10 minutes.

  2. Fold the large bath towel and place it in the bottom of an insulated bag. (I had an insulated reusable grocery bag.)

  3. Cover the hot food dish with foil and place it on top of the bath towel in the bag.

  4. Surround the sides and top of the dish with the hot dish towels.

  5. Zip-up the insulated bag (if it has a zipper) and put it in the car.

My dip was still steaming a half hour later when we arrived to the outdoor potluck.

We kept the foil on the dip to keep it warm in between service. It cooled down within about 40 minutes, so a warming tray or chaffing dish would have been helpful to keep it hot throughout the evening. However, most of the dip was gone anyway; the one hot dish at the potluck was a hit!

DIY solution to keeping food hot while traveling.
Hot towels out of the dryer stuffed in an insulated bag are a quick DIY solution to keeping food hot while traveling.

Know the Right Temperature

Aside from keeping the integrity of the taste and texture, hot and cold temperatures are vital to preventing bacteria growth and food-poisoning friends and family.

digital food thermometer
Digital food thermometers help keep food pathogens from forming.

Keep hot foods hot (above 140 degrees F) and cold foods cold (below 40 degrees F). If they are out of this temperature range for more than two hours, discard them. They've entered the Danger Zone and have likely had bacterial growth such as E. coli or Salmonella that can lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and even hospitalization, according to the USDA.

It's a good idea to carry a food thermometer with you to potlucks and picnics to ensure food doesn't enter the Danger Zone.

Share your ideas for keeping food hot in the comments!

If you'd like nutrition coaching, schedule a free virtual consultation with a registered dietitian at: ZEST Nutrition.


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