Safety Tip: Buffet Etiquette

by in Dining Out, Food Safety, September 11, 2009

buffet safety
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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Comments (42)

  1. Dedee says:

    Yes you have some people who are not so clean but you take that risk every where! you eat out
    just because you order off the menu you don't know what goes on in the kitchen or if they washed
    their hands after a bathroom visit or any other break for that matter. You take your chances anytime
    you eat out. If the place looks clean and there bathrooms are kept clean the place should be up to
    code.They cannot control what some inconsiderate people do but over all I just watch what others
    do or if any kids are playing in the food then I just avoid that food if you avoid the buffet because
    of some servers these same people are handling your food in the kitchen.
    and as far as the contaminated veggies the salmonella and ecoli comes from chicken and cow
    manure and byproducts they use for fertilizer and it was'nt handled properly.

  2. Kat says:

    All of these are the the reasons I eat at Sweet Tomatoes. We wash our hands before we get in line and make sure that we wash them again before we eat. Sweet Tomatoes does a lot of neat things like labeling and portion control and they change the utensils frequently.No I do not work there but I eat there twice a week. Besides its healthy mostly vegetables and if you over eat there you are basically grazing.

  3. Susan says:

    Another thing to keep in mind when you wash your hands before eating at a restaurant, if you turn off the faucets and open the door to leave with out using a paper towel, you are re-contaminating your hands. The bacterial counts on those two are always very high when tested. Its easy to become paranoid. We need to realize that we cant keep ourselves totally safe anywhere. I just do the best I can without giving up on doing normal things ( and eating normal food )

  4. DENISE says:


  5. Guest says:

    All of your comments have merit but for me the main two reasons I don't do the buffets (much) anymore are the fact that people let their children be big people at the buffet lines and most of time the food does not warrant the ridiculous overeating that I do, not to mention all the waste. In regards to the children I just get upset when I notice children going to through the line without parent supervision. Believe me that is a kid about to play in some food on that line. That part really gets to me because other guests have to suffer because some parent does not want to do their job. I don't know about everyone else but the buffets I have gone to do not have that great of food on them and I end up wasting many of "new" plates mentioned at the beginning. I always overeat. I have just told myself it is better to just go to a restaurant and order the one meal I'm wanting and get pretty full off the huge portions restaurants still serve here in good ole Texas ;)

  6. Lisa says:

    I was an assistant manager in a restaurant & I had to take a food & safety sanitation class after that I will never eat at a Buffett again & neither would you if you took the class.!!!! That was 15 years ago.

  7. Bill says:

    I am a student at a culinary college and had to take the food safety and management certification. It is really up to management to oversee how their operation is run and put effective measures in place to ensure guests safety. Personally I like Buffets. If I go into a buffet restaraunt and I observe methods etcetera that I don't like, then I just leave. If you are worried and don't know how to spot problems or inadequate safety measures then I suggest you try a Full Service Deluxe Buffet.

  8. tamidor says:

    Hi Lisa and Bill,
    That's great that you had to take the food safety certification exam. I am actually a certified ServSafe instructor and have taught the course to hundreds of culinary students since 1999.

  9. Conqui says:

    Saw a buffet worker tasting a tray of mac & cheese with the serving spoon!! Complained, manager almost apologized, then thought better of it and implied I was lying. Last time at that buffet, needless to say. And I tell everyone I can about it.

  10. Rob Barrett says:

    I have a question, I've traveled all over the world, but I've only eve seen big, all you can eat buffets in the US. (unless I'm at a tourist destination like Mexico that caters to Americans.) Are there any other countries that culturally have these huge buffets?

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