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. Liza says:

    Pretty much the reason we are the most overweight country in the world-serving sizes are out of control. (I say this as a person who has just fought to drop some weight). I love buffets (especially Indian food…mmmm!), and cleanliness notwithstanding–it does compel one to overeat to get their money's worth!

  2. Joel says:

    I have seen some horrofic things at buffets throughout the country – everything from employees putting food back in the trays that had spilled off of people's plates onto the serving counter to patrons rubbing their hands through their hair, "cleaning" their nose, etc. and then grabbing food with those same hands off of buffet plates or trays.

  3. Michele says:

    Yes you need to be careful of were you eat, not only the germs but I found a crate staple in my food in one buffet place. You can only imagine what else is in this stuff.

  4. Mommy2KiwiNDuckie says:

    BY Far our worst buffet experience was the other day. we went to Hometown Buffet on a Friday around lunch time. There was the shrimp scampi with the mushy shrimp, the baked "mystery" fish (there was no identification of the fish, could be cat fish, could be cod), the frozen Banquet mac and cheese, the under steamed broccoli, the cheese sause that tasted like it had been strained through an old sock, or the fried chicken that was "gamey". The list goes on and on. Basically almost anything in the place that was cooked was terrible. the only exception was that the baked sweet potatoes, not sweet potato casserole, just sweet potatoes cut in half and baked with a little seasoning.
    The only GOOD things we had were our salads ( how hard is it to screw up raw vegetables) and the deserts. The desserts were still buffet style desserts but they were yummy and sweet.
    In addition to all of that. the "waitress" was often around us to clear other tables of their used plates, and offer to bring them coffee or drink refills, and she only came to out table once to clear our plates, and despite the 3 almost empty glasses on the table, she did not offer to refill our drinks.
    They do not have cups with lids in the restaurant so my daughter was drinking out of a regular cup, (fortunately she is really good with cups, so there were no accidents)
    the food was terrible, if I just wanted a salad I could have (and should have) gone to the Soup Plantation down the road.
    This was a waste of time and money. if you are in Chula VIsta ,California and want a decent meal at a good price… GO ANYWHERE ELSE….

  5. Phil Davis says:

    I work in a restraunt that has a buffet. So I really do not know where to start for experiances. All I can say is people can really be pigs!!!!!!!

  6. omegaphatz says:

    One thing that gets me at buffets are when people pile the "popular item" on their plate. Im sure y'all have seen it. One person has a stack of crab legs, oysters, or chicken wings on his plate. I was at a buffet the other day and the hot item was craw fish. I passed by tables where people had a stack of craw fish on a plate and while eating food from other plate. I go to where the craw fish are in the buffet and surprise surprise, it's all gone. Later I saw those same people get new piles of craw fish, and I go back to see it all gone again. That drives me nuts.

  7. hdufort says:

    The biggest threats to your safety in buffet, besides of temperature, are:
    (1) People with dirty hands (coming out of the toilets for instance) rummaging through food with their bare hands.
    (2) Food staying in the warmer or salad bar for wayyyy too long (sometimes more than a day).
    (3) Plus, if they put food back in the fridge for reuse, the cooling/reheating times are perfect for bacterial proliferation (see Bacillus cereus in fried rice and other foods).

  8. Nancy says:

    Speaking of transferring germs…..Awhile back we watched a restaurant worker fill a parmesan shaker. He took the shaker off the table, unscrewed the cap, and dipped the shaker into a large container of parmesan cheese to fill it! Can you imagine the dirty little (and large) hands and fingers that had handled that shaker? I haven't gone back there since!!

  9. ROSABELLA says:

    I love buffet and depends on what restaurant you go. One time I I was dining in a buffet restaurant and overheard a customer requesting for a crab cracker. It so happened that I was standing by where the waiters dished out dirty plates. I saw the waiter took a crab cracker on one of the dirty plates. It bleeds my heart to see that so immediately I went to the customer and informed her not to use the crab cracker which the waiter just handed to her as it came from the dirty dishes; then immediately went to the manager and complained about it.

    Soon after the buffet restaurant has been closed. (I don't know if what happened impacted the closure) or perhaps more grave incidents happened!

    One of the best butfet I have gone is the Fuji Buffet at Madison Heights. It is clean and the servers are very friendly.

  10. It’s actually a cool and useful piece of info. I am glad that you just shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

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