On the Table

Germophobe tactics at the buffet line

September 3, 2013 

You’re standing at the buffet line. That sharp jab you just felt in your side isn’t a hunger pang. It’s my elbow as I’m pushing my way to the front of the line.

It’s not that I’m starving or angling to nab the best slice of pie. I just don’t want to touch the serving spoon handles after all of you have been there before me.

That goes doubly if there are children involved.

My tactic at a restaurant salad bar: I use my right hand for scooping and reserve my left hand for holding the plate. Back at my table, my right hand holds my fork and my pristine left hand is free to hold a pickle or piece of bread.

I never seem to have an antibacterial hand wipe with me when I need one.

I admit it: I am a germophobe. And I will go to great lengths to avoid food-borne bugs.

My fixation is partly aesthetic: I need to know your kitchen is clean and you washed your hands before touching the salad greens. If I’m not confident, I can’t eat.

But communal eating stations are also prime transfer points for bacteria and viruses that cause colds, flu and other illnesses. Minimize the risk for yourself and others by taking precautions:

•  Wash your hands before you line up. Use soap and warm water. And be thorough.

• Don’t reach. Scoop food without stretching your arm – and dangling your sleeve or dropping bits of food – over other bowls of food. Avoid foods that look like they’ve seen heavy traffic.

• Keep handles out of food. After scooping, set utensils down so that don’t fall into serving trays. Never eat food at risk of cross contamination from a dirty handle that’s slid into the spaghetti.

• Use clean plates. If you go up for seconds, leave your dirty plate behind and pick up a clean one.

• Use common sense. Don’t eat from a buffet line that doesn’t look clean. If there’s debris in and around the serving bowls, the sneeze guards are smudged and food looks like it hasn’t been refreshed in a long time, take a pass.

And don’t get me started about escalator handrails.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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