7 Ways Professional Caterers Keep Food Warm

Have you ever gone to a catered event and wondered how the pros keep your food at the perfect temperature until serving? There are several incredible ways in which they do this. Here are the top seven.

Chafing dishes

Chafing dishes are the classic silver dishes that you think of when you think of caterers.

These dishes have several parts that play a role in keeping food warm.

The first piece includes a metal stand of some sort that elevates the trays off of the table. This also allows for the food to be off the table and for the heat source to go beneath.

On top of the metal, stands is a metal tray of varying depth that has a small amount of water in the bottom of the pan. The water is what evaporates and distributes steam evenly on the bottom of the second pan.

A second metal tray is stacked inside the first without touching the water. The constant state of water evaporation is what keeps the food warm.

The heat source that is used to heat the water is called canned heat. This is typically ethanol or methanol based reactions inside a can.

These candles differ from portable burners in two ways.

One, sterno candles are typically made from denatured alcohol. Once lit, the heat source remains consistent and the flame can not be adjusted. Portable burners run on gas and typically can be made larger or smaller.

Two, sterno candles require little to no assembly or set up. In order for them to be operational, a caterer simply has to remove the lid and light it. Portable burners typically require assembly before being used.

Chafing dishes are the number one item that caterers use to keep food warm. They are often large, easy to set up and relatively safe. They are also the most reliable method of keeping food at a consistent temperature for long periods of time.

Chafing dishes are the most common and most versatile way in which caterers keep their food warm.

These dishes are large and very presentable with excellent heat distribution making them optimal for caterers.

Portable burners

Depending on the size of the catering order and the precision of heat control that a caterer desires, they may use portable burners.

These burners are often propane based and vary in size.

Caterers use portable burners when they need more immediate control over the temperature of a specific dish.

Portable burners are used more often with smaller catering groups since they require more attention and present more of a fire risk.

However, they are very helpful for onsite cooking which allows the freshest food possible. This is another major reason some caterers use any type of portable burners.

Portable burners are used more often with smaller catering groups since they require more attention and present more of a fire risk.

Since portable burners are typically single dish or pot-sized this is a rare way that caterers keep dishes warm.

Hot box

Imagine a big, insulated, plastic suitcase with clamps. Great! You now know what a hot box looks like.

Hot boxes are to caterers what flight boxes are for DJs. They help transport food from one place to another safely and, in the case of the caterer, warmly.

Hot boxes are hard plastic on the outside and have tray stacks inside.

Although it’s not perfect for all food types, like soup, it is very helpful for individually plated food, pizza, warm cookies, or other fairly flat dishes.

Oftentimes these boxes are stackable and have wheels for easy transport and maximum volume.

Hot boxes typically keep food warm for an average of 4 hours. The more dense the food is the longer it will stay warm and vice versa.

In order to set up a hot box before using, you would place a hot water pan in the bottom rack and allow it to sit for 20-25 minutes. This is intended to add some humidity to the box.

After the allotted time, you would remove the water pan and replace it with camwarmers. Then you would load the food and shut the box door quickly.

Hot carts

This method of keeping food warm is somewhat rare in the catering world. It is used as a portable method of keeping food warm while serving it.

Hot carts are more often associated with hotdog stands or other street vendor types.

Occasionally, they are used by caterers who are serving very large groups rather than having the plates pre-plated or laying out the food buffet style.

Much like a hot box and the chafing dishes, hot carts are kept warm by water dishes. In larger carts, the water is heated by propane gas flames. In smaller carts, it may be kept warm by camwarmers .

Heat lamps

Heat lamps are also a more rare method of keeping food warm since they are not typically portable. Caterers may use this method if the heat lamps are already provided for them at the venue that they are working.

These lights are best for keeping large, carved to order meats.

Heat lamps produce heat through a filament within the light build that gets extremely hot when a current is run through it.

Although this isn’t the most effective way that caterers keep food warm, it does have the added benefit of giving the food a better look for presentation.

The bulbs in heat lamps often emit an orange-yellow light, giving the food an appealing, warm, inviting look.

Insulated bags

Insulated bags are also used to keep food warm while it is being transported.

These bags are typically used for very short transportation trips since they do not have any other heat source other than what heat comes from the bag.

These bags are best for food that is at risk of being overcooked or could very easily become too hot if put in another method.

You might have seen food delivery services use these insulated bags to deliver your food.

Since the cookies come directly from the warmer, they are fairly warm. By transporting the cookies in an insulated bag they maintain the majority of their temperature and are still warm when eaten.

These bags are typically 22″x 13″x 16″ with nylon exteriors and reflective aluminum interiors. The entire interior is designed to trap the heat from the food within the bag.

Larger catering orders typically opt-out of using insulated bags in favor of using hot boxes instead.

However, they are very useful for smaller catering businesses that are only serving one dish at a catering event.


Crockpots are the rarest form of keeping food warm for caterers. This method is more often used by those at home making food for their large families. Which may be a different form of catering all on its own.

Crockpots are an electric form of keeping food warm. If this method is being used, that means there needs to be a plug near by which limits where the carters can set up.

However, crockpots are best used by caterers to keep medium amounts of sauces warm.

These dishes are somewhat in direct competition with chafing dishes in versatility, keeping food warm and depth. The only reason a caterer would use a crockpot rather than a chafing dish is if the chafing dish is too big for whatever is being used.

For example, if there are several types of sauces for a large group, a caterer may use several crockpots rather than a chafing dish since the overall amount of each sauce is smaller.

Considering all of these methods, remember that the most common method is chafing dishes and hot boxes. Other methods are used for specific purposes or because they are generally more economical.

Anna Silver

Anna Silver is the principal creator of CookForFolks.com, a website dedicated to new go-to original recipes. Inspired by her grandmother’s love of cooking, Anna has a passion for treating the people in her life to delicious homemade food and loves to share her family recipes with the rest of the world.

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