Buffets are teeming with viruses and bacteria. Here’s how to enjoy a satisfying meal without making yourself sick.
Whatever your dining dilemma—you want Italian, your spouse or friend wants comfort food—the buffet seems like the answer.
Unfortunately, the question usually is: Where’d I pick up this stomach bug?
Buffets are hot zones for viruses and bacteria, putting you at risk for either “stomach flu,” typically caused by norovirus or rotavirus, or food poising, caused by spoiled or contaminated foods, says Christine Lee, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Foodborne illness affects about 48 million people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is often related to food safety issues. Keeping foods at the proper temperature is particularly challenging at buffets.
“Hot food needs to be hot, and cold food needs to be cold,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. “When food is left in what we call the temperature danger zone, bacteria can flourish.”
More specifically, “cold foods like dairy should be kept at 40°F or colder, and meat should be kept at an internal temperature of 140°F or warmer,” says Jessica Crandall Snyder, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
As a general rule, no food should be kept at room temperature for longer than two hours, according to the Food and Drug Administration. If it’s going to stay out longer, it should be placed on warming trays or ice to maintain proper temps.
“The staff should regularly be checking temperatures,” Kirkpatrick says, “as well as changing utensils.”
Why the need to change out utensils? To help protect you from fellow diners. Food service workers are required to follow basic guidelines for food safety, but customers are not, Kirkpatrick says.
“If someone goes to the bathroom and doesn’t properly sanitize or is sick, and then touches the food or serving utensils,” she says, “that gets transferred to you.”
The Safe Way to Enjoy the Buffet
Dishes containing meat, seafood, raw eggs, cheese, and other dairy products are in a higher-risk category due to bacteria. But that doesn’t mean they should always be off-limits.
“If you have a compromised immune system, I suggest you avoid certain foods like sprouts and anything totally uncooked, like sushi,” Kirkpatrick says.
Experts offer three additional tips for safe and satisfying buffet dining.
1. Be Proactive About Protecting Yourself
When in doubt, ask what temperature the chicken is currently and how long it’s been on the table, Kirkpatrick says. Good restaurant practice requires staff to keep a temperature log.
2. Use Designated Utensils
“Make sure utensils are specifically indicated for each food item and are not crossing over, which can lead to cross-contamination,” Crandall Snyder says.
3. Store Leftovers Properly
If you leave with a doggie bag, refrigerate leftovers promptly, and eat them within 48 to 72 hours. “I prefer 48 hours,” says Bethany Doerfler, R.D.N., a clinical research dietitian at Northwestern Medicine Digestive Health Center. “If you know you can’t finish them that soon, pop them in the freezer, where some leftovers can last up to three months.”
9 Foods to Skip at an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet
No food is totally free of risk, as there are many different types of bacteria that may cause food poisoning, Dr. Lee says. But by making a few smart swaps, you can minimize your chances of picking up a bug. Here are nine things to skip at your next buffet visit—and what to eat instead.
Buffet Swap #1: Salad Dressing
Choose: Balsamic vinegar
“Eating foods that are higher in acid, like dressings with vinegar, offer some protection against foodborne illness,” Kirkpatrick says. They make it harder for bacteria to grow, compared to creamy dressings like ranch and Caesar, which are made with eggs or milk and often not properly refrigerated, she says.
Buffet Swap #2: Soup
Skip: Cream of chicken
Choose: Garden vegetable
Clear broths, especially vegetable-based ones, are a better bet than dairy- or cream-based soups.
“Just because you see steam coming from soup doesn’t mean it’s the proper temperature,” Crandall Snyder says. “The water could be from the well holding the soup. Make sure the soup itself is actually steaming, which is a good sign it’s hot enough.”
Buffet Swap #3: Pasta Sauce
Since marinara is a tomato-based, acidic sauce, it’s the safer bet compared to alfredo sauce, which is cream-based, Crandall Snyder says.
Buffet Swap #4: Chocolate Dessert
Skip: Chocolate pudding
Choose: Chocolate chip cookies
Puddings can be problematic, Crandall Snyder says. Since most are dairy-based, they’re at higher risk of not being properly chilled, and therefore more likely to harbor bacteria. Go with a baked dessert instead.
Buffet Swap #5: Pie
Skip: French silk
French silk pies can be extremely risky because many contain raw egg and dairy, Doerfler says. Choosing a baked dessert with fruit instead of dairy will keep you in the safe zone.
Buffet Swap #6: Fried Comfort Food
Skip: Mozzarella sticks
Choose: French fries
Here’s the excuse you’ve been looking for to indulge in French fries. While all fried foods are cooked at high temperatures, mozzarella sticks need to be kept at a high temperature after cooking, thanks to their cheesy center.
Buffet Swap #7: Green Vegetable
Skip: Creamed spinach
Choose: Steamed spinach
Vegetables that are steamed rather than baked or sautéed in cream are not only safer, but they’re also healthier, Doerfler says.
Buffet Swap #8: Side Salad
Skip: Tuna salad
Choose: Pasta salad
Pasta salad is usually made with an oil or vinegar base, which is a safer bet than tuna salad’s fish and mayonnaise combination, Doerfler says.
Buffet Swap #9: Fruit
Skip: Ambrosia salad
Choose: Fruit salad
While the whipped topping is what makes ambrosia salad so tasty, it also makes it more of a risk for food poisoning, Doerfler says. Opt for plain fruit instead.
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