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The Panic-Proof Parent: Restaurants and your health

Whether your dine at a fancy five-star bistro or the local sandwich shop, it may be a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses, such as hepatitis A. In fact, According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 76 million Americans will suffer from food-borne illness and at least 5,200 will die this year.

Dining out with children

Children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are at the greatest risk. Symptoms of food-borne illnesses include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, blood or even pus in the stool, headache, vomiting and severe exhaustion. Sometimes symptoms may appear as early as a half an hour after eating; other times it could take several days or weeks.

There's no need to panic or make a vow to never dine outside your home. The first step in preventing foodborne illness is knowing what health hazards to look for.

Ten simple guidelines for guaranteeing a good dining experience

1. Check out the restaurant's most recent inspection report
Some of the restaurant's problems might not be easily detectable. For example, does the refrigerator keep the food cold enough? In many jurisdictions, the latest inspection report must be posted in the restaurant or kept readily available on the premises. You can also obtain this information by calling your local Health Department. This information may also be available online.

2. Judge the general facilities
When you walk in, what is the general condition of the restaurant environment? If it doesn't meet your cleanliness standards, you might want to eat somewhere else. How the manager keeps the place up may be an indication of the amount of pride they take in preparing the food. And use your nose. If the place smells funny, don't order food there.

3. Is the restroom clean?
Some indications are: wastebaskets that are not overflowing and the availability of toilet paper. The toilets should flush and the floors should be relatively clear of cigarette butts and other debris. Check to see that there is hot running water, adequate soap and paper towels or a hand dryer. A clean bathroom suggests that employees are probably paying attention to details. Such care can carry over to the kitchen.

Also, if patrons and employees share the same restroom, is there a sign posted reminding employees to wash their hands? Observe any employee that may be in the restroom when you are there. Did that person adequately wash his or her hands?

4. Are there insects present in the restaurant?
A fly or other insect or bug on a tablecloth, floor or drape is an indication that personnel aren't adequately addressing sanitation and pest control. Certainly, if you have to share your table with bugs, it's time to leave. Also, is there evidence of rodents? If you see droppings or a mousetrap or bait station, find another restaurant. If you come face to face with a mouse or rat run, don't walk, to the nearest exit.

5. Judge the table
Is the tableware spotless? Ask for replacements if any dishes or silver have any kind of spots. If the replacements also have spots, don't eat there.

6. Judge the servers
Make sure they are wearing clean clothes and have clean hands and fingernails, with no open sores, burns or cuts, which may be infected and be a source of harmful bacteria. If they seem lacking in any respect in personal hygiene, do not eat there. Their hair should be up or netted, and they should be washing their hands frequently.

7. Judge table preparation techniques
What do the servers and bus boys use to clean the tables? They should be using a disinfecting spray and clean paper towels. Cloth towels rags and sponges are breeding grounds for germs and bacteria.

8. Judge the serving procedures
Servers should not touch rims of glasses or parts of silverware that touch your lips. And servers should not touch the part of a plate that holds your food.

How do servers provide refills? If the restaurant gives refills on beverages, the refill should either be brought in a clean glass or poured from a pitcher in the original glass at the table. If the latter, the rim of the pitcher should not touch the glass. If glasses are taken to the food preparation area for refill, the question of spreading pathogens arises. Used glasses that are set down among food and clean utensils bring the potential for cross contamination. Even if you don't want a refill, the practice of taking used glasses back to the food area is reason for alarm.

9. Inspect the food delivered to you and your family or guests
Send back any meat, poultry or fish that does not appear thoroughly cooked. All cooked foods should be served piping hot and all cold food, cold. When this is not done, it is likely that the food has not been held at the proper temperature. Send the food back and make sure it's returned on a clean plate.

10. Judge the attitude of management
If you have a problem, promptly notify management. If they don't seem to care about correcting the problem, then don't patronize the restaurant.

Bonus tip: If you're eating at a fast food restaurant, change the norm. In other words, order no pickles, no onions or no mayo, just as long as it is something that requires they prepare your food specially. This will ensure you're getting a fresher sandwich.

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