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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.

Avoid Buffets Salad Bars

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)

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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