Safety Tip: Buffet Etiquette

Buffets are everywhere these -- brunch at the country club, wedding receptions or the local chain restaurant. Some buffets are clean and well-managed, others are not. Here are some tips to keep in mind to stay safe and healthy.

Buffets are everywhere these days -- Sunday brunch, wedding receptions or the local chain restaurant. I just got back from a trip to Israel, and our hotel even offered breakfast and dinner buffets. Now, I've seen some clean and well-managed buffets before, but this place's spread was definitely not one of them. Of course, it's not all the restaurant's fault. We diners can be beastly.

Big (and Little) Warning Signs

It sounds simple, but hot food should be hot and cold food should be cold. You shouldn’t sit down to eat your plate of food only to find everything lukewarm. Check that steam tables are used properly. Food trays should sit securely in a warming pocket, not stacked one on top of the other. Same goes with the cold stuff. Refrigerated foods like milk, butter, cheese, cold cuts should all be on ice and kept chilled. If you find they aren’t, skip them.

Another pet peeve is serving utensils. It always seems like someone made off with the mashed potato ladle. Buffets should have long-handled serving spoons for each item -- no mixing, no sharing, period. (Just imagine if you have a food allergy and someone cross-contaminates!) Size matters, too. At one buffet, I saw diners dishing out ketchup with a teaspoon. I went without once I thought about how many hands had been in that ketchup. Gross.

Proper Etiquette

Buffets inspire bad habits -- overeating and generally making a mess. To keep everyone's meal bacteria-free and healthy, keep these tips in mind:

  • Grab a new plate. You may not want to waste plates, but get a fresh one for every food trip. You've dipped your fork back and forth on that plate and spread around your saliva (and germs!). That saliva can then get on the serving spoon when you dish out some more green beans. There's a reason your empty plates disappear so fast. The restaurant wants you to use newly washed plates so no one gets sick.
  • Go up with your kids. I love kids (I have 3), but they can get into everything. Whether at the supermarket hot bar or an all-you-can-eat seafood place, kids will pick something up, taste it, dislike it and put it back.
  • Ask if you don’t know. Not sure which is the low-fat dressing? Don't taste test; ask the server. Of course, a smart restaurant will label their foods. If you're not sure you'll like it, dip a little on your plate to sample. (I once saw a diner taste food right off the serving spoon!)
TELL US: What’s your best or worst buffet experience?
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