10 Things You Shouldn’t Touch at All-You-Can-Eat Buffets
Here’s how you can enjoy the experience at tempting buffets while minimizing the risk to your health
For some people, an all-you-can-eat buffet isn’t a meal, it’s a challenge. But filling plate after plate to get the most for your dollar could compromise your health. “That competitive mentality and going in overly hungry set you up for overeating and that awful feeling you get 20 minutes after you’re done,” says Lauri Wright, PhD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and chairperson of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, FL.
Not only can all-you-can-eat buffets derail your diet, but they could also put you at higher risk for getting sick. Almost any food can put you at risk for food-borne illness if it hasn’t been handled correctly, notes Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a nonprofit based in Arlington, VA, that aims to reduce the risk of food poisoning. And it’s tough to tell from eyeballing a buffet if the cream of mushroom soup or the sushi is being kept hot or cold enough.
“The zone between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit is what we call the danger zone because, at those temperatures, bacteria love to grow,” Feist says. To minimize your risk, here are some things to avoid next time you hit the buffet line. And before you eat out, you’ll want to find out 13 things restaurant health inspectors wish you knew.
The sneeze guard
You should always wash your hands before approaching a buffet. And be sure not to touch the sneeze guard, which could be a breeding ground for germs from all the people coughing and sniffling around you. “Your greatest risk for contamination is more often going to be from other people taking that food—whether that’s with their hands or whether it’s airborne,” says Jennifer Quinlan, PhD, a microbiologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA.
You may think you’re doing everyone a favor by rescuing the serving spoon that somehow fell into the macaroni and cheese. But think about how many other people have already touched that utensil. “We’re often really careful about touching the handle on the door leaving the bathroom,” Quinlan says.“Well, it’s the same idea.” Utensil handles are considered contaminated, so don’t touch more of them than you have to. Plus, any food that a utensil has fallen into should be replaced (so you may also want to avoid that tray). Quinlan recommends using a hand sanitizer after you get your food and before eating. Don’t miss these 11 other ways to navigate a buffet like a boss.
Greens are generally a good choice amid the array of high-calorie choices at the typical all-you-can-eat buffet. One exception? Sprouts. “They grow in damp environments, and it’s hard to get them thoroughly cleaned,” says Rene Ficek, RN, a nutritionist and owner of Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating in Ottawa, IL. “That’s why people get sick from sprouts so often.” Romaine lettuce and raw spinach also can be teeming with bacteria, like E. coli, so you might want to avoid them, too, the next time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declares an outbreak. To keep up with the next food recall, go to the CDC’s foodborne outbreaks page and then be sure you never eat any of these 13 foods raw.
Sushi may seem like a healthy option, but preparing it safely requires starting with good-quality seafood and plenty of expertise. “If you go to a high-dollar sushi restaurant, there’s still a risk you take by enjoying seafood,” Ficek says. “You put that on a buffet and try and keep it the right temperature, you’re basically asking to get sick,” she says. Besides taking care with raw fish, you’ll want to avoid these 14 surprising foods that can give you food poisoning.
It’s hard to tell how cold food is kept at a buffet, which makes tuna another less-than-great option. “Tuna has to be kept at a colder temperature than other types of fish because it’s especially susceptible to certain types of bacteria,” Ficek says. A good rule of thumb? Look at how often food seems to be attended to by restaurant workers. For tips like this, find out 57 secrets your waiter isn’t telling you.
Restaurants that host all-you-can-eat buffets often fry foods in cheap oils that are filled with artery-clogging hydrogenated oil. “Every time you put something in a deep fryer, it acts like a sponge and soaks up as much grease and saturated and trans fat as possible,” Ficek says. If you are jonesing for something fried like an egg roll or shrimp, ask for it to be prepared fresh and limit your portion.
You should also avoid soups and pasta dishes filled with butter and cream. “All of those are packed with saturated fat, which increases your cholesterol and can damage your heart muscle,” Ficek says. She recommends opting for red sauces like marinara over white sauces whenever possible. And while it’s tempting to indulge when you’re on vacation, here’s why you need to pass on these 11 foods.
Potato salad and other mayonnaise-based sides can also pack a double whammy. “Mayonnaise-filled salads that sit out too long can be more susceptible to contamination and foodborne illness,” Wright says. “And from a nutritional standpoint, they really pack the calories.” Take the opportunity to try an unusual grain-based salad you might not have tried before, or opt for roasted vegetables. Then check out these 15 things you should never, ever eat in a restaurant.
Creamy dressings pose some of the same pitfalls as mayo-based dishes. In addition, they are often highly processed and contain lots of sodium, sugar, and preservatives, Ficek says. Olive oil and vinegar is a much better (and safer) bet. You can also stay well by avoiding these 9 things food-poisoning experts never eat.
We sometimes don’t think of drinks when we’re watching what we eat, but those calories can add up, too. Beverages like sweet tea and lemonade often contain lots of sugar. And if you opt for mimosas, the alcohol and orange juice are also loaded with sugar and calories. Instead, ask for sparkling water or unsweetened iced tea, Wright recommends. Now that you’re savvy about how to navigate the buffet, check out how to avoid the 12 sneaky ways you can get tricked into overeating.
- Lauri Wright, PhD, chair of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville, FL.
- Shelley Feist, executive director at Partnership for Food Safety Education, Arlington, VA,
- Jennifer Quinlan, PhD, associate professor of nutrition sciences department at Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA.
- Rene Ficek, RN, nutritionist and owner, Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating, Ottawa, IL.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Foodborne Outbreaks.”