Buffets may seem like they offer the ultimate bang for your buck. Where else can you score endless amounts of pizza, sushi and fried chicken and as much soft serve your heart desires for $4.99? Your wallet will love you, but your stomach might hate you — in more ways than one.
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Why Fear the Buffet?
“One in six Americans get sick by consuming contaminated foods or beverages.”
The calorie catastrophe of buffets is well-known. (Consider the fact that one egg roll, a serving of fried rice and a big scoop of kung pao chicken contains about 3,100 calories, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.) Less considered, though, is the issue of germs. “There’s potential for contamination both in the back of the house, where food is prepared, and in the front of the house, where that food is served,” says Jeff Nelken, a food safety expert and consultant in Woodland Hills, CA. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six Americans get sick by consuming contaminated foods or beverages.
The communal nature of buffets increases the risk for disease transmission, Nelken adds. Compared to traditional sit-down or fast food restaurants, more people are in contact with the food and the utensils that serve each bite. This isn’t normally a big problem for those who aren’t immunocompromised (pregnant, on medication, recovering from an illness, etc.), but it can become one. Think: If just one person sneezes, sneaks a sample with a finger or drops the serving spoon into the casserole dish, anything from the common cold to E. coli could be passed along to future diners.
The temperature at which food is stored must also be taken into account. Hot food must stay hot (135° F or warmer), and cold food must stay cold (45° F or cooler) to avoid foodborne illness. The longer a dish is left out, the longer it has a chance to fall outside of that “safe zone.”
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What the Pros Say
Proper prep and serving methods are key. Certain buffet staffs are very vigilant about avoiding cross-contamination, but others aren’t as well-trained, Nelken warns. Look for telltale signs of general restaurant vigilance: Are the counters clean and clear? Do you see restaurant staff replacing empty trays with cleaner trays of hot food? Are allergens indicated on menus and near actual dishes? Are there signs on food trays that prohibit sampling? What does their food inspection rating say about their business?
“Gloves aren’t mandatory if hand washing is a common practice and employed properly, but 85 percent of people think they’re eating in a more sanitary place if they see staff wearing gloves,” Nelken says. Some restaurants will also have sneeze guards. They aren’t pretty, but they are there for a reason.
“Don’t be shy. If you have questions about how a food was prepared or how long it’s been out, ask,” Nelken adds. “It’s your health that could be at risk!”
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7 Quick Tips to Safeguard Your Health at the Buffet
Still, the lure of an all-you-can-eat buffet is strong. If you’re goin’ Sizzler no matter what, take note of these tips to eat better — and more safely — when you step up to the plate.
1. Seek nutrition.
Look for a venue that offers a variety of vegetable options and front-loads with salads and other lower-calorie items to unconsciously cut calories. Research shows you’ll naturally eat more of the good stuff if it’s staring you down.
“Look for utensils that are stacked upside down to avoid germs.”
2. Think small.
Grab a plate that’s small to pile on less food per trip. Larger plates can fool us into thinking that the portion we have is too little, when in reality it’s more than enough.
3. Fork wisely.
Try to only use serving spoons and forks presented handle-side up to avoid potential contamination, and look for utensils that are stacked upside down to avoid germs, Nelken says. If you don’t see a designated serving utensil for a tray, ask restaurant staff for a clean one; don’t use a serving spoon from another tray.
4. Table the issue.
Look for a seat that is far from and faces away from the buffet line. This may lead to fewer “refill” trips. Also, build in some chill time between dishes. The body can take up to 20 minutes to register fullness.
5. Do your research.
Nelken says to search for health department records online of the restaurant you want to dine at. These reports are generated by inspections from your state’s local health department. Many local departments have made these reports public and accessible online so people can make better choices about the food they eat.
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6. Carry out your own inspection.
Take a look at the trays of food as you stand in line. Hot food should be steaming, and there shouldn’t be build-up on the sides of the pans or utensils (both are signs that the food has been out too long, most likely).
7. If necessary, call ’em out.
If you do fall ill after eating at a buffet, don’t be shy about letting them know. More than 50 percent of people don’t report this, Nelken says, and if no one alerts the health department and the restaurant, nothing can be done to prevent others from getting sick.