Food that Travels Well

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food catering

Food that Travels Well Creating an Off-Site Catering Menu

A caterer for a start-up business has challenges related to creating a menu that a restaurant owner does not because the usual menu consists of dinnerware that is better suited to a brick-and-mortar establishment.

Because a caterer must make a menu that guarantees well and travels well, they need to take special care to select dishes that will keep well in a chafing dish.

Why to Steer Clear of Certain Foods?

There are diverse reasons why certain food items do not work in general for a catering business. Certain dishes require excessive manual labor, which most caterers cannot accommodate. Some menu items will dry out over time.

Nevertheless, there are times when exceptions exist for each rule. You may be able to use some techniques to get around the standard transport or holding methods so you can cook your items perfectly and have them ready for the event.

Take a look at the chart below to learn about foods that are usually ill-matched for transport or holding for long periods of time, as well as tips on how you can make it work despite the obstacles.

Foods to Avoid

Foods to Avoid for Catering Off-Site
Food ItemReason to AvoidExceptions
Hot seafood itemsFish easily becomes overcooked in a chafer or warming cabinet. And after seafood sits at warm temperatures for a while, the whole site will adopt an unpleasant fishy smell.To get around this rule, try hot crab cakes or fried oysters. Or you can grill salmon or other fish on-the-spot.
Hot pastasAfter being reheated or warmed, pasta is likely to dry out and become overcooked.Try casserole-style pastas like macaroni or lasagna. Or boil the noodles on-site and add the sauce just before placing it on the buffet.
Fried foodsFried foods are notorious for becoming cold and soggy during transport.The safest solution is to fry on-site. The alternative: cool the fried food in a blast-chiller before transport to avoid condensation in the container. Transport the food in a porous container or one with ventilation holes and reheat it in an oven at the site. Use a fried food warmer or a steam table pan with a slotted or perforated lid for better ventilation at the buffet.
RiceWhen reheated or held in a chafer for a long period of time, rice dishes can sometimes dry out or become mushy.Try cooking the rice on-site, in a rice cooker, or pilaf-style in a food pan in an oven. To prepare, you can transport the raw rice in the food pan with the correct amount of water.
Prime rib, lamb, and most other red meatsMany red meat dishes must be cooked and sliced just before service in order to have the perfect consistency. If you let a piece of meat rest too long, it will grow cold. But if you cut it too soon, it will release the juices and dry up.Chill slightly underdone seared or grilled items before transport, and finish them off in an oven in your vehicle or at the site. Then slice them at a carving station. Or, use a portable outdoor grill, outdoor charbroiler or outdoor griddle on-site to make sure they are perfectly cooked.
Hot vegetablesHot vegetables that are reheated or sit too long in a warmer, oven or chafer can easily become overcooked.Instead of cooking your vegetables until they are tender, leave them a little crispy before transport and holding. Hot, crispy vegetables are still yummy, but overcooked ones tend to turn into mush.
RisottoRisotto is infamous for congealing or becoming mushy after sitting in a chafing dish or warmer.Cook the risotto on-site to-order, either on an induction plate or portable butane stove. This is the only surefire way to present an acceptable risotto.

Why Certain Foods Are Perfect for Catering

While some foods will overcook, dry out or lose flavor over time, other foods retain flavor very well, never dry out and rarely become overcooked. These foods should have the first shot at making it onto your catering menu.

However, even these foods can go wrong if you make a mistake. The following chart offers tips on foods that are known for being easy to transport and cater, as well as precautions to make sure they live up to their reputation.

Foods That Work

Foods That Work for Catering Off-Site 
Food ItemReason It WorksPrecautions
Soups & chiliYou cannot overcook soup, and you cannot dry it out. If you cook it longer, it will just get thicker, and you can always add water to thin it out.At a full- or partial-service buffet, watch out for that crusty lining that can gather at the top of your kettle or marmite. Stir frequently to avoid it.
Room-temperature or chilled salads, fresh fruit, fish and pastasCold food is a caterer’s dream. It is not held in a warmer so it will never dry out or overcook.Do not get over-confident about your cold food. Even cold food can go wrong. Greens are especially prone to wilting, and fruits could lose their juices or oxidize into an unappealing brown color. Lime or lemon juice can help prevent this oxidation.
Braised foodsThese moisture-rich foods will retain heat and water very well during transport and holding.Do not leave the chafing dish cover off for very long, or be sure to frequently cover it in its own juices.
Oysters on the half shellThese can be raw or chilled, and are unlikely to cause a fishy smell.Make sure you invest in a bulk oyster shucker and some extra labor, or your oysters will be more trouble than they are worth.
ChickenAs many caterers have discovered, chicken reheats very well and is difficult to overcook.Make sure your chicken is well-seasoned or served with a tasty sauce. Otherwise it will seem like a bland or boring menu item.
Filet mignonFilet mignon is the most tender piece of beef, and is usually prepared rare, so it is unlikely to become overdone in a warmer or become tough during transport.Because the meat has very little fat content, it could dry out easily. Consider wrapping it in bacon or grilling or frying on site to prevent moisture loss.
Roasted or mashed potatoesPrepare them creamy to begin with, and mashed potatoes will not dry out. They will just become thicker.Watch out for the hard, crusty residue that may be left on the side of a food pan. Scrape it off and discard it before serving.
BBQBarbecue sauce will keep the BBQ chicken or pork moist, and these meats are hard to overcook.If you market your barbecue as “crispy,” be wary of putting it in a covered chafing dish or steam table, as it could become soggy.
Curries, stir fries and other Asian dishes with sauceThe sauce will keep the food moist and the spiciness can sometimes mask any potential problems.Be careful. As the dish slowly cooks from warmth in a chafer or an insulated carrier or warmer, the sauce will reduce and gradually become spicier.
Mexican foodFor tacos, fajitas and many other Mexican and Tex-Mex foods, the ingredients can be kept separate and put together at the buffet line.At a build-it-yourself taco, fajita or burrito bar, every ingredient must be well-seasoned, perfectly prepped and attractively displayed, or it could look like the caterer didn’t do much work.
Rolls and breadsDinner rolls, breadsticks and soft bread require no heating or cooling, so transport is a cinch.Make sure to keep your baked goods covered or in an air-tight container during transport. Otherwise you could end up with hard, stale bread. If your bread dries out, reheat with a little water to re-moisturize on-site.


As you take on more catering jobs, and gain experience, you can use that expertise to determine what kinds of food hold up best in transport or prolonged sitting times in hot containers.

Until you get the hang of it, you might want to use these tips as a guide before you select an item to add to your menu that won’t hold up well while traveling, reheating, or heating for long periods of time.

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