Is your favorite restaurant serving you more than just the food you ordered? I’m talking germs — those invisible little microbes that might be multiplying all around your dinner plate. We asked Dr. Charles Gerba, University of Arizona microbiologist, to point out those places in a restaurant that make him want to open the Lysol wipes before he opens his mouth.
1. High chairs/booster seats
Besides the usual germs lurking on the hands and shoes of little ones, there’s always a chance that a dirty diaper may come in contact with the seats in one of these items. That means E.coli — not the best side dish to serve with a meal.
Solution: Wipe the high chair/booster seat with a disinfecting wipe such as Lysol or Clorox. Give special attention to the tray on the high chair before spreading those Cheerios or French fries on it.
Menus, especially plastic ones, pass through many sets of hands throughout the course of a day, and each hand leaves behind some of the germs it’s collected along the way.
“Restaurants are supposed to wipe down plastic menus using a disinfectant," says Gerba, "But so many times, the employees either don’t soak the cleaning cloth in disinfectant long enough to kill its germs or they don’t take time to wipe the menus completely."
Solution: There's not a lot you can do to prevent germs from getting on menus. However, if a menu is obviously soiled, asked your server to bring you another one. Gerba suggests using a hand sanitizer after giving your order and the menu to the server.
Odds are, the tabletop you’re using is loaded with germs — even if you just watched your server wipe it off. That’s because, despite the fact that restaurants are required to clean tables after each use, what they clean with is questionable, says Gerba.
"They’re supposed to soak the sponges or cloths in disinfectant but often they don't. So as they continue to wipe table after table, all they’re really doing is distributing germs,” he adds. “We swabbed a table before and after the server wiped it and we found more bacteria after it was wiped than before. That tells you something."
Solution: "I try keep my hands off the table," says Gerba. If there’s a paper placemat, try to keep your hands there, instead. If that’s not an option, use hand sanitizer before you start to eat.
4. Eating utensils
Eating utensils can immediately become contaminated when placed directly on the table. Always keep spoons, forks and knives on a napkin. Request a second napkin for your lap, if you have to, but keep one for the silverware.
Some restaurants, especially buffets, have bins of forks, knives and spoons for diners. Unless they are individually dispensed, these become contaminated by the many hands that touch them.
Solution: Avoid dining at such eateries, if possible, or request a fresh set of silverware from your server.
5. Top of the pepper container
"E. coli loves to grow there," says Gerba. "It’s a plant-based product. Maybe that has something to do with it."
Solution: Skip the pepper or bring individual packets with you.
"There are many studies about the bacteria found on the outside of lemons in restaurants," says Gerba. Believe them! Between improper handling by servers and cross-contamination in the kitchen, when they’re cut, the outside of lemons should never come in contact with the food you eat or the beverages you drink.
Solution: "Squeeze the lemon juice onto your fish or into your drink, but then get rid of the piece of lemon," says Gerba.