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How to Keep Food Warm for a Party

buffet food being warmed in foil trays

Serving up food at the perfect temperature is a true science, one that requires careful planning, strong time management skills and a proven track record of strategic thinking. But if you’ve got a dozen dishes to juggle and as many guests to entertain, whether your food comes out hot, warm or ice cold is the last thing that you should be worried about. But learning the following tips for how to keep food warm for a party will help take some of the stress off so you can focus on being the host with the most.

appetizers for a party
  • Keep it Warm in the Oven—It sounds obvious, but warming food in the oven is one of the best ways you can ensure that your guests get the fresh-from-the-oven experience. The key here is to keep it on the lowest temperature possible (with most ovens, this is at or around 200 degrees Fahrenheit) and to cover the food with foil. We recommend avoiding this option if you’re cooking a turkey, roast or any other meat that could get overcooked or dried out with too much time in the heat.
  • Install a Warming Drawer—It may surprise you to learn that there’s such a thing as a kitchen warming drawer, which has one purpose, and one purpose only: to keep your food warm. These are permanently installed appliances that provide low heat—usually between 100 and 200 degrees F—that let you keep food warm for several hours before it’s time to serve. This luxury appliance is ideal for anyone who throws a lot of parties or loves to cook.
  • Employ Your Slow Cooker—Pretty much all modern slow cookers come with a “warm”  or “keep warm” setting designed specifically for the purpose of keeping your cooked food warm until it’s ready for the dinner table or the appetizer spread. In some slow cookers, this setting can be used for as long as 24 hours. You don’t necessarily have to cook the food in the slow cooker—just transfer your finished dishes into them for the warming potential.
slow cooker meal
  • Invest in Chafing Dishes—If you’re serving a big crowd buffet style, a disposable chafing set is what you need. These sets feature aluminum pans set over burning flames which are kept alive for several hours using canned chafer wick fuel that sits in a neat little caddy beneath the pan. This is one of the best options if you’re doing an open or self-serve style meal (rather than a sit-down dinner) where the food will need to be set out for several hours.
  • Put it on Warming Trays—Electric warming trays, also known as self-warmers, are plug-in devices with multiple compartments to keep food warm. What’s great about them is that they often come with heat-resistant lids so you can keep food fresh and transport it with ease to wherever the party may be. Other options include flat, heated platforms that keep your casserole dishes, sheet pans and any other heat-resistant cookware warm.  
  • Use Heat-Insulated Containers—If you need to transport your dishes from point A to point B or don’t have chafing dishes or an electric warmer handy, at least make sure to put them in heat-insulated containers. Thermal food containers come in all shapes and sizes, and you can double-up on the warming potential when you put them in an insulated food carrier like a cooler as you’re taking them to their final destination.
  • Don’t Forget the Foil—Aluminum foil is one of the kitchen’s unsung heroes, and it does an amazing job of sealing in warmth when no other options are available or convenient. Keeping meat warm is an especially challenging task—even a tiny bit of extra warmth could cause it to dry out and become tough or inedible—but loosely covering meat with foil can help seal in the tenderness and moisture while keeping it warm.
party food in foil tray

Timing Is Key

Of course, the best thing you can do to ensure that all the food hits the table at the perfect temp is to time it just right. We recommend timing your dishes so that most things come out after your guests have already arrived. Just make sure you’re not keeping any hungry party-goers waiting, and be sure to have plenty of appetizers and beverages to keep them content! 

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