This $20 Warming Tray Is a Must-Have for Any Outdoor Hosting

published May 5, 2023
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Sterno SpeedHeat Food Warming system with food, warming.
Credit: L. Daniela Alvarez

When my husband and I first toured our apartment, we were excited about the prospect of using the private outdoor rooftop for parties and dinners. Since then, we’ve hosted more get-togethers than we can count. Serving food at these parties, however, has always been a bit of a challenge. The high winds on our rooftop would make hot foods cool down faster than we could enjoy them, so we stuck to smaller bites that could withstand cooler temperatures. In my search for a solution, I came across a food warmer that completely changed the game for all my future outdoor soirées. 

What’s So Great About the Sterno SpeedHeat Food Warming System?

With warmer weather approaching my home of Southern California, there’s no better time to serve up some classics like hot dogs and burgers, and some of my favorite sides like Mexican street corn and artichoke dip. The Sterno SpeedHeat Food Warming System has been the most useful in serving these types of food for weekend barbecues, big events, and holidays alike. 

It’s essentially a portable, flameless system that helps keep food warm so you can use it in your own space or even bring it to a picnic or potluck safely where food might be sitting outside for a while. To use, you just fill the Sterno reservoir tray with 10 ounces of warm water, put in a Sterno SpeedHeat pack, let the water steam up for about a minute, and then place a half-size aluminum tray with food on top.

Credit: L. Daniela Alvarez

When I first got the Sterno, I tested it with the cheesiest dish I could think of that was best enjoyed warm: mac and cheese. Because the heat packs are flameless, I was worried whatever food I put in the aluminum tray might not stay warm for long. Once the water started getting steamy after about a minute, I had high hopes. The Sterno worked like a charm and kept everything super gooey and, well, cheesy. 

Each heat pack is water-activated and does not emit dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, but the system should still be used in a well-ventilated area, making it ideal for outdoor parties. The one-time use heat packs are disposable, while the base can be used up three times and then should be recycled. 

The Sterno system can be used indoors and outdoors, but since I’m using it primarily outdoors, sturdiness is important — the last thing I need when hosting is dropping a tray of food on the floor! Thankfully, the Sterno tray is a hardy plastic that didn’t tip over even when I just used one side of it. I recommend keeping it on a flat table or counter, though, to keep the water in the reservoir from spilling out, otherwise it might rock a bit on uneven surfaces. Putting the aluminum tray over it didn’t make the base tray move or slip, so I was confident that food wouldn’t fall out.

Credit: L. Daniela Alvarez

Since the base is reusable, I wanted to see how well it’d hold up for something with less surface area, but still needed to be enjoyed warm. My husband and I had a couple of friends over to watch a baseball game recently, so we figured wings would be the perfect appetizer. 

After taking them out of the oven and letting the wings cool for about five minutes, I placed them in an aluminum half-sized tray and set aside. Then, I placed about 10 ounces of warm water into the Sterno tray’s reservoir and added the heat pack. The tray of wings went on top, and to my amazement, the wings stayed not only warm, but hot, for about 45 minutes. The steam was consistent and continuous, and also made the adjacent tray, which I kept empty, warm.

I love that the double reservoir gives me the space to serve a main and side dish, and keep both of them hot for guests to enjoy. This would also be great for keeping something light like dinner rolls or toasted hot dog buns warm without having to use a second heat pack under it — which I’ll definitely be doing the next time I use the Sterno system, as in this weekend.