Whether it’s a quick meal while on a lunch break at work, family dinners at favorite restaurants, or date nights with that special someone, if you want to stay healthy and avoid getting sick when dining out, follow these eight key tips.
1. Check out the restaurant’s health inspection ahead of time.
Before choosing a restaurant, especially if it’s a special indulgence on a night out, take the time to check the restaurant’s health inspection scores ahead of time. Texas places heavy emphasis on preventing the spread of foodborne illness, so restaurants with a high health score likely take the precautions needed to help avoid transmission of foodborne illnesses and to keep their patrons safe. If you discover a restaurant with a poor health score, steer clear and choose a different restaurant.
2. Watch the employees.
The behaviors exercised by the employees of a restaurant will give you a good idea of how much care the restaurant exercises when it comes to food safety precautions. Do workers change their gloves regularly? Do they wash their hands? Do they scratch around their faces without washing hands or changing gloves? If you observe workers engaging in unsafe practices, you can either talk to a manager or leave the restaurant, depending on the severity of the infraction. You should also take care to look out for sick employees, who could contaminate food as it gets prepared.
3. Choose your meals with care.
If possible, take a look at a new restaurant’s menu online before visiting. Checking it out ahead of time will give you more time to evaluate your choices. You may want to consider the following:
- Choose a meal that uses local ingredients. These ingredients require shorter travel to get to the restaurant and thus may not have as many opportunities for contamination.
- Choose the house special or another popular item, which may have its ingredients replaced more often.
- Avoid dishes that don’t fit the theme of the restaurant—for example, ordering a hamburger at a seafood restaurant. The ingredients for these dishes may get replenished less frequently, since they get prepared less often.
4. When in doubt, send a meal back.
You should not fear sending a meal back, especially in a reputable restaurant. If you notice something that does not seem right, including a dish that smells “off “ or does not have the appearance or temperature you expect, send the meal back, and let the chef know about the problem. If needed, replace your meal with something else that seems safer.
5. If you have food sensitivities or allergies, contact the restaurant ahead of time to learn how it will handle your issues.
Some restaurants specifically train their workers how to handle food sensitivities or allergies. Others, however, do not offer appropriate training to their employees. Contact the restaurant ahead of time to:
- Make sure that the restaurant has dishes that accommodate your needs. You do not want to arrive, only to learn that you cannot eat anything at the restaurant.
- Ask how the kitchen handles the possibility of contamination. Patrons with severe allergies may not want food cooked in the same fryer as other dishes. If you have an uncommon allergen, the restaurant may have more trouble avoiding accidental contamination, so make sure you indicate what food causes your reaction while talking to the restaurant. If the restaurant does not properly avoid that risk of contamination or cannot assure you of the food’s safety, avoid the restaurant.
6. Check buffets carefully.
When eating at a buffet, check over the food to make sure it remains near optimal temperature. Cold dishes should remain cold, and hot dishes should remain hot. At room temperature, bacteria grows rapidly on many foods, substantially increasing the risk of foodborne illness.
You can keep yourself safe when eating at a buffet by:
- Choosing foods that a worker replaced recently. Foods fresh out of the kitchen and steaming have likely just been prepared (or at least re-heated) and should have little to no contamination.
- Avoiding foods that look like they have spent too much time on the buffet. Most people have, at some point, walked up to a buffet to see a soggy, overcooked dish that looks like it has been sitting for far too long. Avoid those dishes. If you see your favorite foods and desperately want to try them, approach a server and ask him or her to replace that dish. Food safety regulations require regular replacement of buffet dishes, even when patrons do not consume them, so the server should have no problem replacing them as needed.
- Watch out for contamination between foods. If you notice that a seemingly fresh dish has been contaminated by a dish that has been sitting out longer, avoid eating out of it, if possible.
7. Don’t forget your healthy eating habits.
Many people automatically over-indulge at restaurants. They condition themselves to think of restaurants as a “treat” and eat accordingly, choosing their favorite dishes and eating more than they would at home. Unfortunately, those unhealthy choices can leave you feeling out of sorts and uncomfortable—not to mention jeopardizing your overall health.
Make sure you maintain healthy eating habits when dining out, including:
- Choosing healthy side options, including vegetables or a side salad, when possible.
- Checking the way the chef prepares a dish, rather than choosing fried dishes or those prepared with heavy amounts of oils and butter
- Practicing portion control—not necessarily just splitting your meal in half, but considering what a real portion should look like and how it compares to the rest of your day.
- Looking up nutritional information about your meal ahead of time so you can make better choices
8. Wash your hands.
This will decrease the chance that any germs you picked up along the way to the restaurant, or shaking hands or walking around in it, will make spread to the rest of your body. Soap and water is far better than hand sanitizer at removing germs.
Many of our clients eat out on a regular basis, and they find food safety very important. By following these tips, you can feel more secure in your dining choices when eating out, substantially reducing your risk of contracting a foodborne illness.