Booths, bathrooms and bars — oh my! Thanks to all the common spaces, as well as the horde of hands that touch your plates, utensils and glasses, you may be wary of the germs lurking around your local food joint.
Since we're in the thick of flu season, and as concerns about the novel coronavirus continue to mount, you may want to take a few extra precautions when dining out. If you don't want a side of microorganisms with your main dish, read on for expert ways to avoid picking up germs at a restaurant.
1. Don't Let Your Utensils Touch the Table
To avoid a mouthful of microbes, make sure your utensils never make direct contact with the table. That's because tabletops tend to be some of the germiest spots in eateries, according to University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, who cites his own research published in Food Protection Trends, which found that 70 percent of tabletops in bars and restaurants harbored harmful bacteria.
But don't servers wipe them down after each customer? Yes, but that's part of the problem. Gerba's study discovered that almost 90 percent of dishcloths used to clean tabletops tested positive for coliforms (a type of bacteria found in poop), while 54 percent contained E. coli.
That may be in part because staff don't use proper disinfectants or, if they do, they're not allowing enough time for the disinfectant sprays to take effect, Gerba says.
OK, but what if your fork only touched the table for a few seconds? "I know that many still use the 'five-second rule' to distinguish whether or not to use or consume an item after contact with a surface, but, unfortunately, microbes tend not to obey these rules," says Jason Kindrachuk, PhD, a virologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada.
Rather than risk infection, it's better to be safe and ask your server for a new set of utensils.
2. Wash Your Hands After You Touch the Menu
Throughout the course of a day, menus pass through scores of fingers. And every pair of hands leaves behind some trace of germs that could make you sick.
In fact, a July 2015 study published in the Journal of Food Safety discovered the presence of staph and E. coli on restaurant menus — which were then transferred to customers' hands — and that these bacteria survived for at least two days.
So, if you don't want to mix your finger foods with meddling microbes, lather up after you order and before you dig in.
"Our best defense is washing our hands before and after a meal," Kindrachuk says.
Always use soap, and scrub those puppies for at least 20 seconds (or the time it takes you to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
3. Cool It on the Condiments
Condiments like salt and ketchup don't add much to the nutrition value of your meal, and grabbing the shaker or bottle may not be the best idea either.
Case in point: A September 2017 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found coliforms and aerobic bacteria — types of common fecal bacteria that contribute to foodborne illness — lurking on the surface of salt shakers and ketchup bottles at restaurants.
If you can't live without your condiments, consider tossing a few individual packets in your bag to use instead. Or at least sanitize your hands after you touch them (just make sure you're using a quarter-size dollop of a sanitizer that's at least 60 percent alcohol).
4. Wipe Down Highchairs
Ever thought about all the dirty little fingers and poopy diapers that have occupied a restaurant highchair? Unfortunately, kids' highchairs are often cesspools swarming with nasty germs, Gerba says.
So, what can you do? Come prepared with disinfectant wipes (make sure they're at least 70 percent alcohol, per the CDC). Before you sit your little one's butt in a booster seat, wipe down all the surfaces of the highchair, paying special attention to the attached tray where his or her fingers and food may touch.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
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- Food Protection Trends: “Identity and Numbers of Bacteria Present on Tabletops and in Dishcloths Used to Wipe Down Tabletops in Public Restaurants and Bars.”
- Journal of Food Safety: “Recovery, Survival and Transfer of Bacteria on Restaurant Menu.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “When and How to Wash Your Hands.”
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Bacterial Presence on Common Objects at Bar-and-Grille Restaurants.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "COVID-19: Resources for Households"