How to Keep Food Hot Without Electricity

Updated February 21, 2017

Keeping foods stored at temperatures below 4.44 degrees Celsius and above 60 degrees Celsius helps to slow the rate of bacterial growth. If you plan to serve hot foods and don't have access to electricity, chafing dishes allow you to keep food hot with the use of hot water and Sterno ethanol fuel cans. The fuel cans keep a pan of water hot to generate steam. A food pan placed inside the water pan is kept at safe temperatures because of the heat of the steam. Chafing dishes are most effective if food is hot when placed in the food pan.

Transfer hot, prepared food to airtight storage containers.

Line the bottom of a cooler with a towel, place the airtight food containers on top and then pack towels around and on top of the containers. The combination of the hot containers, towels and an airtight cooler will keep your food hot during transport.

Pour 2 inches of hot water into the water pan of the chafing dish.

Transfer the hot food from the storage containers to the food pan of the chafing dish.

Place the food pan inside the water pan and cover it with the lid to keep the heat in. The food pan is slightly smaller than the water pan with a lip that catches on the edge of the water pan to keep it suspended above the water.

Pull the tabs off the fuel cans and place them in the fuel-can holders on the bottom of the chafing dish. The number of fuel cans you need depends on the size of your chafing dish.

Light the fuel gel to keep the food hot without scorching the food. You can buy fuel cans with adjustable wicks so you can control the size of the flame.

Replace with additional fuel cans and add water as needed to keep the food hot for the duration of the meal.

Transfer leftover food to the storage containers, then put them back in the cooler with ice to keep the food cool until you can store the containers in a refrigerator.


If you don't put hot food into the chafing dishes, allow a half hour before serving it so that the fuel can and hot water have enough time to heat the food to the proper temperature. You can keep cold foods cold in chafing dishes by filling the water pan with 2 inches of ice and using the pans without the fuel cans.


Food that has been left below 60 degrees Celsius for more than four hours should be discarded to protect against food-borne illness.

Things You'll Need

  • Airtight food storage containers
  • Towels
  • Cooler
  • Chafing dishes
  • Hot water
  • Sterno fuel cans
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About the Author

A former cake decorator and competitive horticulturist, Amelia Allonsy is most at home in the kitchen or with her hands in the dirt. She received her Bachelor's degree from West Virginia University. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle and on other websites.