Insights & Actions for Healthy Living
Avoid Illness from Restaurant Food – See It Through a Dietitian’s Eyes

Avoid Illness from Restaurant Food – See It Through a Dietitian’s Eyes

Restaurant silverware with debris or food stains been on your table before?

Me too and I am not a fan!

I have worked in food service my entire life, beginning with my two and a half year stint in fast food at my first job in high school. I worked for a great chain that believed strongly in good service, cleanliness and being fast. They weren’t the number one fast food chain but really wanted to be. That experience taught me so much about what should and shouldn’t happen in dining service.

Since becoming a dietitian I have studied food safety, food handling, proper food storage, HACCP (food safety standards known as Hazard Analysis and Clinical Control Points) guidelines and am ServSafe certified. This certification teaches the highest quality standards for serving safe foods to consumers and cleanliness practices for the entire establishment including protecting against allergens and terrorist/sabotage threats. You may see this certificate displayed in restaurants you visit.

When I walk into any restaurant I look through eyes that are more sensitive than most but it has served me well because I have avoided being sick. I can’t go into the kitchen to see the operation, but the signs are throughout the rest of the facility that will help me make a decision whether or not I will partake in the dining experience. You might like to see through fresh eyes what could make you and your family sick when you eat your next meal away from home.

What This Dietitian Spots

When I first enter a restaurant, my eyes scan for the food service inspection report or grade given by the department of health inspector. All food service establishments are required to post their inspection results, though where and what is posted varies by locale. In some places a full report is posted with the score and a written synopsis of what was found to be substandard. In some places a grade of A, B, or C is the only sign you will see. I always read the report and as a consumer actually prefer that to the single letter grade because I like more information when I can get it. If that report is poor or the letter is not an A, I turn around and leave. Trust me, I have searched for places that meet my standards and so should you.

Initial Appearance Upon Arrival:

  • Are the windows at the front doors filthy?
  • Is the welcome mat dirty or front entry full of pests alive or dead or dirt along the baseboards?
  • Is there a garbage can out front that is overflowing and attracting flies?
  • Do your shoes stick to the floor? This really could be an obvious sign of trouble as if it didn’t matter if the floor was washed daily. During the busy rush, if a drink is spilled I know they are going to try to clean it up and don’t mean that type of sticky spill. When the entire floor is sticky or greasy, they aren’t cleaning well and that will continue into the food preparation areas as well.

These are a sure sign no matter what the score given this may not be a healthy place. If it fails making a first impression, I am not confidant that anything in the rest of the place is kept clean.

At Your Table:

  • When you sit down are the chair seats clean, sticky or full of crumbs?
  • Is the table top clean but the edge sticks to your sleeve?
  • Are the salt and pepper shakers or other condiment containers sticky or empty?
  • Is the silverware clean? How about the glass that holds your beverage?
  • Are the overhead lights dripping cobwebs and dust?
  • Do the walls next to your table have splatters and fingerprints from past diners?
  • How does the place smell? Is it smoky without a reason since it isn’t a BBQ joint, musty, dusty or moldy? Is the air damp?

The last point is a potential indication of a problem areas since air quality can affect your food. You don’t want dust from the vent falling into your food while you wait for it to be served or mold in storage or prep areas. Are there flying insects inside the place? If they are in the air, they are landing on the food too.

Restaurant Staff

  • Does the wait staff look clean — hair, fingernails, clothes, shoes, apron? If they don’t care for themselves will they care for your food and utensils? Hair restraints are naturally important to keep hair from falling into my food, but not always required similar to gloves. But unruly, unkempt and dirty hair and fingernails is another story that should not occur.
  • How do the servers bring out your plates of food and beverages? Do they hold them with their fingers on your plate or fingers inside your drinking cup? On which side do they touch your utensils-the handle or the eating end? Ugh, touching the eating surface of my cup, plate or fork is a no no!

When ordering a meal, consider the types of food that are prone to contamination including preparation methods. Can you see food sitting out, uncovered and unrefrigerated? I was once in a national chain that had a gallon of milk on the counter at the ready to pour for any children but it remained untouched on the counter during my entire visit! I am glad my children didn’t order milk.

Avoid Becoming Sickened by a Restaurant

Have you ever gotten sick eating food when out? Did you think the restaurant would not put you and your family at risk so didn’t consider this to be a possibility until you were hit with a food borne illness? You are not alone. At some time or another, everyone will be sickened by the food they have eaten while dining out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 70% of foodborne illness is linked to food prepared outside the home.

I have also often questioned the safeness of some of the food I have been served and chose not to eat it potentially saving myself a bout of belly upset. Restaurants are inspected but not as often as they should be to maintain safe practices. I don’t believe they are using poor quality practices intentionally but either are uneducated on the risks they pose to the public or don’t know how to enforce the rules. Maybe they are not staffed appropriately.

Sometimes I ask myself where is the manager and isn’t he or she paying attention!? Attention to detail is important and being clean is even more vital when we are talking about foodservice. It doesn’t have to be spotless all the time – no place can be – but should look like someone cares enough to wipe off surfaces patrons, especially children, might touch during a meal.

Food Borne Illness

What is food borne illness? It is defined as an infection or irritation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract caused by food or beverages that contain harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses, or chemicals.

A variety of foods are prone to cause food borne illness including raw meat, poultry, unpasteurized eggs and milk, raw seafood, raw fruits and vegetables, and unpasteurized fruit juice. Washing fruits and vegetables will help reduce the risk of contamination. Cross contamination from surfaces of fresh and raw products mixed with ready to eat and cooked foods also increases the risk. Food handlers who do not adequately wash their hands can also spread food borne illness.

Unfortunately, food borne illness usually occurs because the food handling, storage and overall cleanliness of the facility and food handlers is unhealthy, which is why it is important to observe the cleanliness in a restaurant and be aware of the food inspection rating.

The symptoms of a food borne illness can be small to severe, maybe even resulting in hospitalization or death for more fragile people like children and older adults. Common symptoms of food borne illness include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and chills. It can lead to dehydration and worsening symptoms. If you feel that you have any of these problems please check with your healthcare provider. Most food borne illness occurs quickly and lasts for a short time.

Action Key to Prevention

Food borne illness can be prevented with proper food handling, storage, and cooking, as well cleaning equipment and surfaces thoroughly to prevent cross contamination. Good hand washing helps stop the spread of bacteria from contaminating food. Food handlers should also not prepare your meal when they are sick.

If you suspect that you have contracted food borne illness when dining out, you should report it to your local health department so that they can investigate the situation to be sure no other people are affected.

I know you will be looking even more closely at what is happening at your favorite local restaurant. Good luck and have fun using your new set of eyes!

2 Responses to Avoid Illness from Restaurant Food – See It Through a Dietitian’s Eyes

  1. As a dietitian as well, I am often hyper aware when dining out. Not sure about you, though this knowledge has saved me from illness, at times I am over critical and find less enjoyment in the restaurant experience. Great blog post. Thanks for the good read. Another place to look is at the menus… Sticky/dirty menus are a good reason to think twice!

    • Thank you Christine! I am glad you liked the post! You are so right–isn’t it amazing how often we are given a gloppy, sticky menu! Thanks for sharing your great comment!

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