Nutritionists Say These Are the Biggest Food Safety Red Flags at Restaurants

Look for these food safety faux pas next time you're dining out.

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Risky Food Business

When you walk into a restaurant, there are probably things that raise your food-safety antennae. Don’t worry — you’re not the only one. Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) from across the country weighed in on what restaurant habits they have to avoid food-safety pitfalls.

The Faux Pas: Dirty Menus

According to Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of Nutrition Starring You and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club, the menus — which are constantly touched by food-covered hands — are usually never washed. Talk about unappetizing. "I always use hand sanitizer after relinquishing my menu to the server," she mentions. Another option? Look for restaurants with single-use menus.

The Faux Pas: Salad Bars and Buffets

Perishable food sitting out at room-temperature should always make you skeptical. According to Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, it means that, "microbes could be growing in the food and potentially causing foodborne illness." Perishable foods should always be chilled or heated to the appropriate temperature, so if you see otherwise, steer clear.

The Faux Pas: Dirty Bathrooms

"My biggest red flag when dining out at a restaurant is a dirty bathroom," says Liz Weiss, MS, RDN and host of Liz's Healthy Table podcast and blog. "If the bathroom is a mess, it makes me think twice about the cleanliness and overall condition of the kitchen."

The Faux Pas: Sick Employees

"An employee who is sneezing, coughing or wiping their nose may be contagious and at risk for cross-contamination," says Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, CCMS, LMHC, FAND-Certified Chef Nutritionist (LDN). Dorfman explains that according to ServSafe guidelines, the rules are pretty simple: Employees should report their symptoms to a supervisor, see a healthcare provider and refrain from preparing and serving food until the infection has passed.

The Faux Pas: Hot Food That Isn’t Served Hot

Cold chicken soup is a red flag for Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, a clinical nutrition professor at Boston University and the host of the health and wellness podcast Spot On!. "Bacteria that can make you sick thrive in a temperature range called the 'danger zone', which is between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F. In this zone, those nasty bugs can multiply to levels that can make you regret that you made the reservation," says Blake.

Associate Professor Emeritus Albert Einstein College of Medicine Keith Ayoob notes he couldn’t agree more. "If I get a salad that's lukewarm or meat that's room temperature, I always wonder how long it's been sitting out," Ayoob says. "Hot foods especially shouldn't be out for longer than two hours — one hour if it's a typically warm restaurant kitchen."

The Faux Pas: Handling Money and Food

Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND and author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide explains that money should never be handled with the same hands or gloves that touch food. This is something to look out for in fast-casual restaurants where the same person putting your meal together is also working check-out. Either the restaurant needs a designated money-handler, or the worker needs to replace his or her gloves after touching money or a credit card.

The Faux Pas: Cleaning Tables with Dirty Rags

Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD, owner of Lemond Nutrition, doesn’t like seeing a dirty rag being used to clean the tables. "They dip it into what is supposed to be soapy water, but I wonder how clean it really is. Foodborne bacteria can grow on the tables and touch your plate, napkins and utensils," Lemond explains.

The Faux Pas: When Food Allergies Aren’t Taken Seriously

"As a mom to a son with severe food allergies, dining out can be especially tricky," says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, FAND, author of the upcoming cookbook My Indian Table and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "When a restaurant does not take the food-allergy request seriously or acts as if they are unsure of the ingredients after speaking with a manager or chef, we leave. Food allergies can be life-threatening, and if the restaurant is unable to cater respectfully and courteously to our request, it’s not worth taking a chance."

The Faux Pas: No Hand Soap in Restrooms

Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and creator of the Wholitarian™ Lifestyle says that restrooms without soap are her biggest red flag. "Hand washing for at least 20 seconds with soap and clean, running water is one of the single most effective ways to prevent the spread of disease and germs like salmonella and E. coli 0157," Malkani explains. "When a restaurant doesn’t ensure that hand soap is available in the restrooms for both employees and patrons, it’s a signal that food safety is not a priority for the establishment."

The Faux Pas: Fingerprint Smudges on Condiments

"If a restaurant isn’t taking the most basic steps to keep the condiments at your table clean, I don’t even want to think about other places they’re neglecting food safety," says Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging. "Because I can spot this food-safety loophole before I even place my order, it’s also an easy way to determine if a restaurant is just too dirty to eat at."

The Faux Pas: Dirty Utensils

"One of the first things I look at is the condition of the table and utensils," says Amber Pankonin, registered dietitian and podcaster at Healthy Under Pressure. "If the table looks dirty and if the silverware does not look clean, it makes me question the cleanliness of the kitchen."

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