a restaurant with a buffet and tables
Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Are the Free Continental Breakfast Buffets at Hotels Disgusting? Some Tips For You

As I was eating grapefruit and orange sections from a styrofoam bowl with a plastic fork while seated at a table at the continental breakfast buffet of a hotel property one morning, I hear a muted plop next to me.

Looking over to my right, I noticed that a styrofoam plate had escaped the clutches of a teenage boy who was about to use it as a conveyance for choices of food — yet to be determined — back to where he was sitting.

Unable to experience the anticipation of freedom due to the unfortunate fact that plates typically have no legs, the plate — which was face down on the floor — was recaptured by the boy…

…and in a brave and unselfish act in which he might have considered himself a hero, the boy rescued the plate and placed it back on the pile of supposedly unused plates on the counter of the breakfast buffet, leaving the plate waiting for a second chance for an unsuspecting victim to use it to aid in consuming his or her nourishment for the morning.

I sat there, stunned. I should not have been surprised, as I have seen worse in my travels over the years — but I was stunned, just the same. Of course, I eventually said something about it.

Whenever people observe me taking a plate or cutlery before I partake in self-service sustenance, they notice that I do not take the most readily accessible item — and they apparently think that I am weird. I try to determine which are the items least likely to have been exposed to what I witnessed at that breakfast buffet that morning. I never take the top plate in a pile; and I attempt to take the utensil which is comfortably nestled within its fellow brethren. Napkins? Not the top one, please. Cups? Oops — look at all of the cups that are stuck together in my attempt to lift only one. I will just take this one and place the several cups back on the stack.

I can hear it now: I should keep my grimy paws off of the plates and utensils which other people will use. Despite the fact that my hands are usually washed before handling any item which will be used as an aid for human consumption, I handle those items as carefully as possible with respect for the next person in mind, thank you.

Unless touched by the person responsible for the layout of food and utensils for the breakfast buffet, you can be assured that disposable items will most likely have been untouched by human hands, as I reported in an article I posted back on April 19, 2013 pertaining to whether or not you should drink from glasses in hotel rooms

…unless that fly buzzing around the breakfast buffet had already landed on any of those items beforehand. Did I say fly? I mean flies. I never understood why flying insects are so clever when it comes to infiltrating an enclosed space by finding a hidden opening unknown to any human; yet they instantly become stupid when they want to escape — but I digress, as usual.

Let’s face it: when the opportunity for unlimited grazing rears its ugly head, people will take advantage of it in ways that could turn your stomach. Did someone manage to bypass the nose guard and sneeze on that tray of muffins? How many hands touched that bagel before you arrived to claim it? What kind of germ factory awaits you on that set of tongs or that large serving spoon?

While I realize that there is no need to be a germaphobe or a mysophobe — as the defense system of the human body can be remarkably efficient in thwarting off carriers of diseases — I still prefer to take what I consider to be reasonable precautions to ensure that my health does not suffer…

…and the worst “disease” I have suffered over at least the past ten years is a minor cold or rare headache at best. Why take chances?

I was once at a restaurant — with family members while I was visiting them in Florida years ago — which offered a buffet where you can eat as much food as you wanted. Extremely uncharacteristically for me, I became violently ill after I dined at that restaurant — to the point where I could not eat, sleep or even move much for almost an entire week, which completely ruined my visit.

That restaurant was part of a chain which still exists — but is a shell of its former self.

Here are some tips which I employ to enjoy — I use that term loosely — the fare offered at a buffet while reducing or eliminating the possibility of adverse effects on your health afterwards:

  • Consume “packaged” food. In addition to food sealed in a container — such as cereal in a box or a baked good sealed in plastic by its manufacturer — consider eating items where you must first peel the rind or shell off of it, such as oranges or eggs.
  • Ensure that the plate or utensil you use is indeed clean. If the plate is actually of the reusable variety, I sometimes notice that there may be food stuck on it from a previous user. Despite the likelihood of that plate being sterilized through an industrial dishwasher, I search for a cleaner plate anyway.
  • Watch your surroundings. Observe the behavior of others at the buffet. If you notice an action which you might consider suspect, avoid the food in that area of the buffet. If the behavior is egregious enough, consider reporting it to management.
  • Be first. While this tip will not exactly be lauded by etiquette enthusiasts, this is your best assurance that the food you consume will be as fresh as possible while having had as little contact by other human beings as possible. When you see an employee bring out a new tray of food to the buffet area, get to it as soon as possible. Also, consider going to a breakfast buffet offered at a hotel property when it first opens — but that may mean being ready to eat breakfast at 6:00 in the morning. Unless there are others who are guests at the hotel while on business and have either early appointments or early flights to catch, the feeling of eating freshly-prepared food while in a tranquil setting can be gratifying — and you are usually already finished and on your way while the throngs of ravenous people are first making their way to the buffet.
  • “Sterilize” the food item, if at all possible. An example of this suggestion is toasting a bagel instead of eating it “raw” — and I usually adjust the toaster to the medium setting at a minimum. As I am originally from New York, I believe that those insipid lumps of dough at the continental breakfast buffets at hotel properties do not even deserve the designation of the word bagel — but toasting it at least improves the taste and texture slightly. Anyway, do what you can to the food item to reduce your chances of contracting an illness — even if that reduction is minimal at best. Toast, boil, microwave — you get the idea.
  • Wash your hands properly before AND after partaking in the buffet. The conclusion of at least one study by a university claimed that most Americans do not properly wash their hands — despite the fact that keeping your hands clean is quite easy to do.
  • Avoid buffets altogether. There are many people who do just that — although you might find yourself in a situation where you are hungry and might not have another option. If you do enjoy partaking in a buffet, be choosy about which one meets your personal criteria for quality and cleanliness.


None of the suggestions I listed above are foolproof by any means — and not all of them may work for you — but they have worked for me…

…and although I do not avoid buffets altogether, I am quite particular about which ones I do patronize and — as I said — I have not experienced any significant illness in years.

What have been your experiences with the complimentary breakfast buffets offered to guests at hotel properties — and what tips and advice would you recommend to ensure that the experience is as enjoyable as possible?

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

  1. I agree with the concern and being careful.
    I must point out that things happen anyway and we could get sick without knowing the cause. You might very well have had something like Norovirus which was picked up from a doorknob or shared serving utensil.

    1. You are correct, charles — things do happen; but I attempt to mitigate getting sick in a number of different ways in which I have converted into habits.

      Whenever I use a public restroom, I usually use a paper towel to activate the faucet or open a door…

      …and I never rub my eyes or touch parts of my face without washing my hands first.

      As I said, these methods are not foolproof; but they have worked for me — even when I handle items with the potential to harbor plenty of harmful bacteria, such as garbage…

  2. I agree with your suggestions and at times I go even a little farther. There is NEVER a substitute for hand washing before and after.
    Worst hotel buffet experience: Near Seattle on a Friday, about five years ago. I had called ahead to verify the breakfast would be available: Yes, Sir, from 0730 until 1000.” When I arrived at 0750, the dinning room was stuffed and the buffet was a mess, perhaps had been raped. What I later learned was that there was a high school team spending the night and the coach told them to Be There at 0730, Sharp! When I asked management if they could clean up a little bit and provide a bit more HOT FOOD, she said, “We’ve got a clean up crew, but I’m afraid that the ‘chef’ has already left.” I’m thinking SERIOUSLY HORRIBLE planning and hotel management without a clue! I was lucky to get a cookie and cold cereal, milk only by SPECIAL Request. On the bright side, I was granted a generous bill credit and offered a polite apology.
    I think they learned an important lesson that Friday: Hotel’s overnight census (x) = Breakfast fixings (Y) does not work when X includes >75% traveling high school of college athletes!
    As for your sanitary precautions, yup, I do much the same thing. And since the fixings (Y) are too often prepared only once, when reasonable, I try to arrive early! The Hotel Breakfast is not what it was ten years ago and I am far less impressed with the added value. If it really says, “Eggs to order,” one might be safe. If it says “eggs,” expect a basked of hard boiled eggs!

  3. My biggest pet peeve, parents that allow their children to play with the jelly, butter etc. on the table. And then put it back even after having been in the babies mouth.

  4. You know the reusable mats placed on the table on which they put the plates and cutlery? Those are some of the filthiest items in the room. I never use / eat something that touches that.

    Then, I try to find bread rolls at the bottom of the pile, to increase chances of food safety.

    I try to eat only food items that are put in the buffet under a glass / plexiglass “roof”.

    Packaged food is, indeed, a very good advice: singular jam portions packaged individually, butter portions, yoghurt, etc.

    1. …and you gave some good tips as well, John Brew — many of which I already follow.

      It is a shame that we even have to think of such things.

      Thank you for posting your thoughts.

  5. This should be about the quality of the food. In short: don’t eat it. Have a banana and coffee. The rest is junk, fatso.

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