Bringing a meal to a friend or relative in an aged care facility is a lovely gesture. Providing a friendly, home-cooked meal with someone you love shows that you care and can brighten up their day.
Before preparing meals, it is essential to consider that most aged care homes have different rules about accepting and reheating food brought in for their residents. This is for the safety of the residents - as immune systems get older, they become weaker, meaning that elderly people are more vulnerable to harmful foodborne illnesses. If older adults get food poisoning, they often suffer from more severe consequences than younger, healthier people.
To ensure that the meals you’re bringing to your loved ones are not potentially harmful, it is essential to understand the dangers in preparing, transporting, reheating and storing food.
Here are a few important things to remember when bringing food into an aged care facility.
Before doing anything, it is essential to talk to the staff at the aged care facility about their rules. Ask if there are any specific dietary requirements or restrictions that you may be unaware of. If bringing food into the facility is permissible, inform the staff that you are bringing food in and what type of food you are bringing. When leaving, let them know if you have left any perishable food items in the person’s room.
There are some foods that pose a particularly high risk to elderly people, as they may contain Listeria or other harmful bacteria. Therefore, it is advised that the following foods are not provided to elderly residents:
- Cold meats
- Cold cooked chicken
- Prepared or pre-packaged fruit and salads
- Chilled seafood
- Ice cream.
Raw egg-based products such as eggnog, homemade mayonnaise, aioli, hollandaise sauce and desserts like tiramisu are also potentially harmful and should not be provided to elderly people.
Before preparing any food at home, you should always wash your hands thoroughly and ensure that your equipment is clean. If you are chilling or freezing food that you have just cooked, it is important to cool the food as quickly as possible - never cool food at room temperature.
We recommend that you divide your creation into smaller portions and place the portions into a refrigerator or freezer once they have stopped steaming.
When transporting meals, temperature control is vital. If food products are in the Temperature Danger Zone for too long, they can be harmful. To avoid contamination during the journey, you will need to ensure that chilled food is kept cool and hot food is kept hot along the way.
Food that is in the Temperature Danger Zone (between 5 and 60 degrees Celsius) provides bacteria with the perfect environment to rapidly grow and multiply. If food is left in the temperature danger zone for too long, bacteria can multiply to numbers that may cause food poisoning.
If possible, you should always cover pre-made meals and refrigerate them overnight. When transporting cold food, place the meals into a cooler with ice packs. Remember that coolers cannot cool food, they can only keep cool food chilled.
As it is difficult to keep hot when transporting, you should avoid taking hot food to aged care facilities. If you must take food to your friend or relative while it is still hot, you can use insulated jugs, preheated with boiling water. Regulating temperatures in these situations can be difficult - so it really is best to cool food overnight and reheat it at the residence.
As mentioned earlier, different facilities will have different rules when it comes to dealing with food prepared externally. It is important to tell the staff that you have brought food in for your friend or relative - you should also ask about the best way to reheat the meals.
At some aged care facilities, staff are more than happy to reheat the food for you and at others, they are not permitted to handle the food. Whether the staff are preparing the food or if you’re reheating it yourself, it should always be heated to a minimum of 75 degrees Celsius. This will ensure that any bacteria or viruses present are reduced to a safe level for consumption. To make sure that the food is of the best quality only reheat the food once.
If your friend or relative does not eat the food you prepared immediately or does not eat all of the food at once, the food needs to be stored in a refrigerator. It is important that both the staff and the resident know that perishable food cannot sit for too long at room temperature.
If food has been at room temperature:
- For less than 2 hours, it can be used or refrigerated
- For a total of longer than 2 hours but less than 4 hours, it must be used immediately
- For a total of 4 hours or longer, it must be thrown out.
For further information on food sitting at room temperature, refer back to our Storage and Temperatures article.
Sometimes elderly people can forget how long food has been out of the refrigerator for. You should have a conversation with them about the temperature danger zone and ensure that they are being safe with the meal or meals you’ve prepared. Unsafe food does not always look or taste unsafe. For pre-packaged food, make sure they are aware of the ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date.
- Always wash your hands when preparing food.
- Once food has been cooked, chill it in a refrigerator before taking it to the aged care facility.
- Use a cooler with ice packs to transport any chilled or frozen food.
- Pre-cooked meals should be reheated to at least 75 degrees Celsius to reduce bacteria or viruses that may be present in the food.
- Ensure that perishable foods are consumed or refrigerated in a timely fashion and all 'best before' or 'use by' dates are accounted for.
Through preparing, transporting, reheating and storing food safely, your friend or loved one can enjoy a lovely home cooked meal without the risk of getting sick. Visit our Resource Centre to learn more about food safety and how to avoid the spread of foodborne illness.