Even before the pandemic, going to restaurants is super stressful for me. Over the years, I developed routines that helped me avoid getting sick at restaurants. It’s not just about preventing infection from colds, flus, or even COVID-19, but also food poisoning. I’ve learned many lessons along the way, so I’m sharing these tips that have actually worked for me.
Total disclaimer, though — I adhere to all of these practices every time I go to a restaurant. With my complicated health history and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), I take this really seriously which may account for why it’s been so successful. This post will come off as paranoid to some, and I’m okay with that. This is written for those who must take precautions in order to live their lives to the fullest.
People will look at some of these suggestions and think it’s so time-consuming (it’s not, with practice) or fearful (it’s the opposite – this provides tools to empower people like me to be able to go out and live!). What I’ll say is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — I’d rather do these things than be out sick for weeks. I took 40 flights in 2019 without getting sick once, despite my health issues. This has worked for me, but you need to do what’s right for you!
A Word About “Germaphobia” and OCD
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often a long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions), and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” It impacts 1.2% of the population (or more) and among adults with OCD, half experience symptoms strongly enough to seriously impact their lives. A common concern is a fear of contamination.
I’ve lived with OCD since I was seven years old, and my medical issues reinforced (intensified) my rituals. I’m also a psychology professor. For many years, I hid my condition because people can truly be cruel and/or ignorant. When I finally started being more open, it was very difficult to deal with the mockery and judgment. People will demand you explain yourself and put you on the spot, which can be horrible and demeaning.
When I’ve explained that my OCD is compounded by the fact that I’ve got underlying health issues, many have said things like, “Oh, well at least you have a reason to be like this.” It’s very hurtful to hear something like that, as it’s a backhanded way of continuing the stigma against people with mental illness. Your OCD is enough reason for others to respect your boundaries and show compassion!
To my friends with OCD or germaphobia: my heart is with you. Surround yourselves with caring people who allow you to be yourself and will support you as you work on coping strategies. Weed out the critical, unhelpful people in your life. Just as it’s inappropriate to complain about not being able to take the stairs because your friend needs a wheelchair, it is indeed inappropriate to make someone feel bad for mental illness. Find your tribe and live a more peaceful life.
Keep Your Hands (And Tableware) Clean
When you enter a restaurant, you probably grabbed the handle of the front door. Then, you touched the menu. And the glass your server brought you (with their dirty hands). Did you use (and touch) the condiments? What about the bathroom door on your way out?
Your hands come in contact with a lot of communal surfaces in restaurants, which is why you need to keep them clean. I’ll be honest and say that I bring sanitizer and wipes when I go out to eat. I wipe down the table and clean the silverware and drinking glasses. Then, I wait until I’ve handled everything I need to handle (menu, condiments, etc…) before sanitizing my hands to eat.
Avoid Peak Times
More people, more problems. At least when it comes to spreading illness. If you’re packed in like sardines, you won’t be able to maintain any sort of distancing. Also, when it’s crowded, there’s probably a higher chance that someone in the group of diners is sick.
One other perk to avoiding peak times? The cooks and servers won’t be rushed. Hopefully, this will mean that they pay better attention to safe food handling to reduce the chances of food poisoning.
Skip The Buffets
When I was a kid, my family loved buffets. By the time I turned 20, though, there were things about the experience that made me uneasy. There are about a million different articles out there about the dangers of all-you-can-eat places, but here are just a few reasons you should consider skipping the buffet:
- You don’t know if the food is old
- It can be hard for restaurants to maintain buffet food at a safe temperature
- Everyone in the restaurant handles the serving utensils
- People cough and sneeze without covering
- Kids (or adults) might touch food or serving items and contaminate them
Overall, the choice is yours, but it’s been decades since I ate at a buffet and I’ll never go back. This also applies to potlucks and “serve yourself” dinners. These are common at conferences and I’ve observed some pretty nasty things over the years. No, thank you!
No Food Sharing
Go to a Mexican restaurant and the first thing you’ll get is a bowl of chips and some salsa to share. When it’s me and Josh, we dive right in, but I definitely don’t do that when I’m with other people. I knew one woman who didn’t believe in washing her hands and literally touched every surface of her tortilla chip before dipping into our “community” salsa. Absolutely not.
So, if you’re dining with people who don’t live in the same household, you probably want to keep your food to yourself if you’re trying to avoid getting sick at restaurants. Yes, I’ve had people make fun of me for not wanting to split a basket of fries or naan bread, but I really don’t care. Anyone who would act like that are not my kind of people!
Say No to Cold (or Warm) Food
If you order a hot dish and it comes to you cold, ask for a replacement. This is especially important if it’s meat. This has come back to haunt me too many times. Room temperature Wendy’s chili and not quite hot enough KFC both gave me pause, but I ate them anyway. A few hours later, I was doubled over in the bathroom hating life.
The same is true if you order something that should be cold, but it’s warm. This could be a sign that it’s been sitting out too long and is no longer safe to eat. Remember, beyond wanting to stay healthy, you’re also a paying customer. You have the right to speak up if something doesn’t seem right!
At Fast Food Restaurants
If you’ve read any of my theme park reviews, you’ll know that I’m really vigilant at fast food restaurants. The turnover rate at these places is often high, meaning the staff may not be well trained or experienced. We’re going to break this down into a few steps.
Watch the Crew
It’s more convenient to hit the drive-thru sometimes, but if you can, linger inside and pretend to look at the menu. While you’re doing that, pay attention to the crew. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Does anyone seem sick?
- Do they handle food properly?
- Are they wearing gloves?
- Do the people handling food also come in contact with money?
This will give you a good indication of whether to place an order or walk out. Don’t be shy, either. We’ve been bold enough to ask people to clean their hands before touching our food and, while some might roll their eyes, they generally comply (because they know they should have anyway!).
Do you want some ketchup or barbecue sauce to go with your tasty meal? Like anyone, there are some foods that I just can’t eat without the right condiments. While this is one area that people often overlook, here are some tips:
- Get your to-go order BEFORE asking for condiments. Otherwise, they’ll just grab them with dirty hands and throw them into the bag on top of your clean, unprotected fries. Sigh. Note: they do the same with napkins, so speak up!
- We rub hand sanitizer on packets of condiments before we open them so that the ketchup (or whatever) doesn’t make contact with the dirty exterior before we add it to our food.
- Be really mindful with condiment stations where everyone is using those pumps. We avoid them by always ordering our food to go even if we’re eating in (see below).
Yuck, yuck, yuck. Again, you can do some research on this, but large numbers of employees and customers handle food trays before piling them near the garbage. Nope! Now, there are times when we’ve had to use them, but we are always mindful to clean our hands before eating. We’ll touch more on this below.
Another overlooked aspect of eating fast food is the drink situation. If you’re trying to avoid germs while eating out, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Watch how the cashier handles the cup. Some grab the cup and then hold it by folding their index finger over the top. This means their dirty hand has been on the interior of your cup. Ask for a new cup and tell them why.
- Make sure they don’t touch the underside of your drink’s lid. This area under the lid will make contact with the liquid in your cup and then you’ll drink it. They should handle the lid by holding the outside edges.
- Clean the top of your lid (even the ones with spouts for hot drinks, for example). Your straw will make contact with that and then it will take whatever is lurking on the surface and put it into your drink.
- Wipe down juiceboxes or pouches before giving them to kids.
- Ordering tea? Ask them not to add the teabag. Do it yourself so you control the handling of it.
- Ask for no ice as ice machines may not have been cleaned properly.
Straws & Utensils
We don’t use the stuff that’s just in a bin for everyone to reach in and grab.
- Only use straws that have wrappers (or bring your own reusable straw – even better!).
- Use wrapped utensils or wipe/sanitize ones that are unwrapped when there’s no other option (or bring your own reusable straw)
Always Get Your Food to Go
Even if you’re planning to sit in the restaurant, ask for your order to go. There are a few reasons why we usually do things this way (we’re a lot more lax in the summer when it’s not cold and flu season):
- The kitchen staff will likely put your food in the bag, skipping the money-handling cashier.
- Your fries will be safe in a bag rather than propped up on the nasty food tray.
- You’ll be able to walk out quickly if things get sketchy in the restaurant (people coughing at a neighboring table)
- Rip the bag open and use it like a tablecloth to avoid contact with the table.
Wipe the table
Do we wipe the tables at restaurants? Yes, almost every single time. Again, part of this is OCD, but this is also about high-risk populations doing small things to protect themselves against big problems.
If a cancer patient (or anyone!) wants to enjoy a quick bite but also wants to avoid contact with germs, 20 seconds to wipe down the table is a minimal time investment to help keep them safe. Again, we wouldn’t have to do this as much if more people were respectful and mindful.
Here’s a tip about casual dining: we find restaurants that do things well, and we stick with them. Restaurants often reward loyal customers. Not only do they treat “regulars” better because they want to keep us happy, but they’re also more willing to honor special requests.
So, our best and most important advice is to find some places that you can trust and give them all your business. Let’s go over a few things to help you stay healthy when dining at sit-down restaurants.
Ask For a Booth
Whenever I can, I ask for booths in restaurants. If it’s tucked away in the corner or against a wall, that’s even better. Booths kind of isolate you from other diners, which is a good thing if you’re trying to avoid getting sick at restaurants.
Another added bonus to booths is that you can more easily stash your cleaning supplies beside you on the bench seat. I’m not one to carry a purse, but I do have a small bag for my wipes and sanitizers. In our post-COVID world, you could probably keep face masks in there too!
There’s a few things to keep in mind when it comes to the menu — it’s basically the only thing that gets passed around from table to table without being cleaned.
- Wash your hands or use sanitizer AFTER handling the menu.
- Skip menu items that you have to hold with your hands if this is a concern for you.
- Consider looking at the menu online and asking them not to give you one at all.
Some people like to look at a menu even if they know what they want, but always clean your hand vigorously after handling it.
All of the same suggestions for fast food drinks apply to casual dining restaurants, too. There are a few additional things to consider, though:
- Ask the server NOT to put lemon wedges in your drink. They are often sliced up and put into a bin where someone (anyone) reaches in, grabs it, and puts it in your drink without washing their hands.
- Ask the server NOT to put your straw into your drink. Again, this is usually done without washing their hands.
- Skip the ice.
- Bring your own reusable straw or ask for one that is wrapped.
- Watch water refills – if your straw touches the pitcher, ask for a new one.
- Keep your straw with you if the server takes it for refills.
- If you drink from the glass, wipe the rim before you put your mouth on it.
- Remember that your server has handled your glass, so if you grab it with clean hands, you’ll have to clean your hands again. We either wipe it down or position it so that we can drink from it without touching it.
Plates, Utensils & Condiments
At most restaurants you’ll receive utensils after being seated. Some places will also provide you with a small plate for sharing food or appetizers. It’s also common to see condiments on the table. We clean our utensils and the plate with a small amount of hand sanitizer. Instead of cleaning the ketchup bottle, we squirt out what we need and then clean our hands afterwards.
A Few Extras
We’re pretty much done (yes, this was a LOT), but there are a few more things that we take into account when we’re going out to a restaurant, even if it’s a fast food place:
- Bring a pump of sanitizer and put it on the table. We do it and we do not care who doesn’t like it.
- Does the restaurant look well-maintained? If not, you may not want to press your luck.
- Consider sitting in a booth. It feels more isolated and limits the amount of foot traffic that will pass your food.
- Watch carefully to make sure your server’s fingers didn’t come in contact with your actual food (we’ve seen this A LOT). If they grazed a french fry, for example, just remove it from your plate.
- Avoid sitting near the toilets and drink machines where people will congregate or line up.
- Celebrating a birthday? Skip the birthday candles; even well-meaning servers may put those into a celebratory dessert with unwashed hands.
- Leave your phone in your purse or pocket. It’s covered with germs. Instead, unplug and enjoy a few technology-free moments 🙂
Be Prepared for Mockery
We travel EVERYWHERE now that we have more confidence and these are the strategies we use to stay safe and to have peace of mind. For that reason, I don’t care what anyone says — this is how I live and I’m fine with that. If this helps you see the world and live your life, then do it without apologies.
People have warned me against the poisons of hand sanitizer (to be clear, hand washing is best but it’s not always practical), but the alternative for me (since so many people careless expose others to illness) is to just stay inside. I refuse to do that anymore, so sanitizer has become my best friend.
If you plan to implement any of these things, prepare to be mocked or called paranoid. I’ve had grown ass adults laugh in my face or pretend to cough on me for laughs. Doing that is never cool and it says a lot more about them than it does about you. They aren’t going to pay your lost wages or medical bills, so tell those people to get over themselves. If they’re that easily triggered by someone using sanitizer, they have the problem — not you.
That being said, I’ve lived this way for YEARS and have become so proficient at taking these steps on the down-low that most people don’t even notice. Recently, I grew tired of hiding it and have been more open. I’m committed to fighting the stigma, but I also understand that many might want to learn how to do all this discreetly (trust me, it’s possible — Josh had no idea for the first four years we knew each other!).
If you liked this, you might also like some of these posts on The Anxious Travelers:
- Coronavirus and Travel: Should You Cancel Your Trip?
- How to Avoid Getting Sick During Cold & Flu Season Travel
- Stay Healthy While Traveling With These Natural Remedies
- The Best Essential Oils for Travel Anxiety
- 7 Carry-On Essentials to Avoid Getting Sick on Your Flight
- 5 Ways to Avoid Germs at Amusement Parks
- The Ultimate Germaphobe’s Guide to Hotel Stays
- Can CBD Oil Help Your Travel Anxiety?