How to Prevent Food Poisoning In Restaurants

Have you ever had food poisoning? Chances are, on some level, the answer is yes. I have, and it really stinks.

Health experts say that the majority of time, food poisoning occurs when we’re outside our homes. That is, when we eat at restaurants, delis, or cafeterias, or when we buy a quick bite from a street vendor.

But is there any way to avoid getting food poisoning when we go out? Well, yes, but only if we know what to look for.

In a previous post, I went over some tips to prevent food poisoning in general. Today, I want to specifically give some advice that will help you lessen the risk of food poisoning at restaurants and the subsequent health expenses that go along with it:

1. Trash and Parking Lot

First, take a look at the restaurant you just pulled into. Can you see the trash bins from the parking lot? Is there trash in the parking lot, or overflowing from bins? Is the back door open (which would allow flies and vermin in)? Is there pooled water around the restaurant?

Also, observe the employees, if any are outside. Are they hosing down mats or tossing wastewater onto the concrete or grass?

These are all details that health inspectors look for because each of these things will attract rodents, cockroaches, and other unsavory things.

Keep in mind that how people take care of the outside of their restaurant offers some great insight into how they take care of the inside. If the outside is grubby and unkempt, what’s the kitchen going to look like?

2. Watch that Salsa

The Center for Disease and Control says that salsa and guacamole is increasingly becoming the cause of food poisoning.

The reason why salsa and guacamole can be dangerous is because they’re often made in large batches with several ingredients, and often not refrigerated properly. One bad ingredient can sicken a lot of people.

3. Don’t Eat Fish on Monday

According to the Food Poison Journal, restaurant-goers should never eat fish on Monday.


Because chances are the chef bought the fish for the busy Saturday night. If it didn’t sell out, then it likely sat in the fridge all day Sunday. By the time you’re there on Monday night, it’s way, WAY on its last legs.

4. Examine the Cooks and Wait Staff

What should you look for?

  • Clean aprons and uniforms. Cook staff especially should not be wiping their hands on their uniform (which harbors bacteria that can spread to food). Dirty aprons are not a good sign.
  • Hair restraints.
  • Clean and manicured hands (no cuts, bitten nails, or raw cuticles).

5. Avoid, At All Costs, Buffets and Salad Bars

The Food Poison Journal puts it bluntly: eat at a salad bar only if you have a loaded gun to your head. Many people think salad bars are fine, but the Journal says this is one of the main places people get sick in a restaurant.

Food in salad bars and buffets are rarely kept to the correct temperature. Also, lots of people touch both the food and the utensils. Bacteria can multiply rapidly here.

6. Beware of Specials

In high class places, specials are the result of the chef scoring some awesome produce or meat.

In lower class places, specials are sometimes a way to “dress up” produce or meat that’s been sitting around so they can move it out. Buyer beware.

7. Smell Your Food

Your food should smell good. If there’s any kind of funny odor or taste, send it back pronto.

8. Check out the Restroom

Health inspectors say that the condition of the restroom isn’t always a good indicator of the kitchen like you might think. A restroom can be pristine because it’s what the public sees, and the kitchen can be a mess.

But you can still get some clues about the place. Is the soap filled (and it better be liquid, not bar soap) so that restaurant staff can properly wash their hands? Are there paper towels?

9. Eat at a Chain

It pains me, PAINS me, to say this, but according to MarketWatch, you’re statistically safer if you eat at a chain. Why? Because chains have a lot to lose if their diners get sick. Due to the potential consequences and negative publicity, chaings have a ton of resources to help manage food safety. And they have cleanliness standards that employees must abide by.

Also, although eating at chains (especially fast food chains) isn’t healthy for you, they can be a good way to save money when eating out. If you want to go this route, I might recommend a place like Wendy’s, which at least has a slightly healthier 99-cent menu.

10. Send it Back

If your beef or chicken is undercooked and still pink in the middle, send it back after the first bite. Undercooked food supports the growth of bacteria.

And this goes for all your food. If the food is supposed to be hot, it should be steaming. If cold, you should be able to feel the coolness. Lukewarm anything is bad.

Last Word

It’s hard, at least for me, to know where to draw the line on being overly-cautious. I mean, I love local, small restaurants with a passion. Avoiding these places just in the off-chance I might get sick is not going to happen. It’s also very difficult for me to start visiting chains (which I avoid like the plague) and expensive restaurants simply because it’s statistically safer.

It’s also hard to know where to draw the line with grungy. One of the most amazing restaurants I ever ate at was this tiny, hole-in-the-wall place in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This place was Dirty, capital “D” required. You practically had to walk through the kitchen to get to the dining room upstairs (San Franciscans, do you know the place I’m talking about?).

But the food was AMAZING. I mean, stunningly delicious, supreme happy food. And CHEAP. I’ve thought about flying all the way back just to go to this place again. If I’d been super cautious about cleanliness, I would have missed this great experience. And that would have been a real loss, since it’s one I’ll never forget.

What do you think? Are you able to draw that line between being smart and being overly cautious?

Conversely, have you ever gotten sick from food poisoning at a restaurant? Did you notice anything about your food, or the restaurant/staff, that should have clued you in?

(Photo credit: albera)

  • Julieanne

    I recommend doing a Google search for your state’s health department and the annual or biannual restaurant checks by health dept. workers. In some areas, the health inspection workers are paid off to give the restaurant a passing rating, but in other areas, you can see the inspection scores and read the comments by the inspection worker.

    After my nephew got seriously ill and was in the hospital for four days with severe food poisoning due to eating crawfish in a Chinese buffet restaurant, and I read the health dept. reports for that restaurant, it made me almost physically sick to see that it was taking 24 hours to drop the temp of macaroni salad down to an acceptable level in their cooler, instead of a couple of hours, or reading that raw chicken was stored in racks in the cooler above salad bar items, with the raw juices of the chicken dripping down onto the salad bar offerings.

    I got online and checked out the restaurants in my county, and was very surprised to see that a few of the restaurants that we thought were excellent had horrible ratings and bad comments, while others that we thought were probably not so good had scored really, really well.

    And yes, of course, the chain restaurants ALL scored almost 100% on everything. You’re right; they don’t want their reputation harmed, so they are training their workers how to do things right.

    It was very interesting to look at our county’s scores on restaurants in our area. I highly recommend doing this for your safety.

    • Heather Levin

      Julieanne, thanks so much for writing in with that idea! That is horrible about your nephew, and really, REALLY disturbing that the restaurant failed on so many accounts. I agree with you 100% on checking the health department before visiting a restaurant.

      I’m sure that tip will be eye opening for a lot of readers; it sure was for me.

  • Leha

    Thank you, Heather, for this posting. I’ve learned some things from all of these ideas. And I *need* to learn, because I get food poisoning from restaurants more than anyone I know! I was starting to think it was something wrong with me, except that I have never gotten sick after eating at home.

    I’m pretty sure salads are the number one culprit for me, because I already have to be so careful with my diet due to other factors that I end up eating mainly some kind of salad when I go out. So I suspect more and more places are making them up in advance and then letting them sit around, or possibly not washing their produce properly.

    I do choose fish over other animal foods, too, so that’s another possible problem. Now I know to only order the fish on Friday or Saturday!

  • Joy2b

    When you’re healthy, and have time to get sick, indulging in small risks makes sense. (Most adults handle illnesses from their local food sources well, because they have some immunity. If you protect yourself perfectly, you may start losing that immunity.)

    If you’re fighting off a cold, pregnant, feeding someone who doesn’t have a healthy adult immune system, or planning to jump on a plane in two days, then it’s reasonable to play it safe.

    • Mike Robins

      you should always play it safe. all it takes is one bad illness and it can really mess you up and cause long term problems.

  • DrStueven
  • Trudy

    I am in the midst of food poisoning right now and my symptoms started 4 hours after eating at a major chain here in Canada called Tim Horton’s. I am pissed off because it is ruining my long weekend.

  • Trudy

    Oh, I also got food poisoning from Taco Bell 5 years ago and haven’t been back since, so just because they are a chain doesn’t mean it wont happen.

    • J

      No, but you said it yourself. “…haven’t been back since,”. I assume that means you don’t go to any Taco Bells any more. This means that all the franchises, not just the one that screwed up, lost your business. I don’t eat at certain chains because I’ve had bad experiences. Corporate knows that people do this, and so they make sure there’s strict rules. WIth a non-chain, if they’re dirty and people get sick, they lose business and close, often. With a chain, they damage an entire brand, so the parent company won’t allow the same amount of damage to be done to their name, or people won’t want to buy franchises.

  • JB

    I got really bad food poisoning at Red Lobster on my birthday a few years back. All of my family ordered lobster dishes and I ordered the crab legs since they were always my favorite. We went to a movie right after and almost as soon as the movie let out, I started feeling really sick. I threw up for about three days, my stomach was constantly cramping and I felt like I was dying. When I started to get a little better, since I hadn’t eaten much but toast and crackers during those three days, I got some lime soup from my favorite Thai restaurant thinking that would help but it made the sickness come back with a vengeance. I have never been to a Red Lobster since and am unlikely to ever go back again. I have almost a phobia when it comes to vomiting. There was nothing that ‘clued’ me in while I ate the crab legs but I later read that if for some reason a restaurant takes crab out of the fridge and leaves it out for a while then puts it back, it can cause the sickness I suffered from.