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Potluck & Hygiene

We have potlucks in our office every couple of weeks. I seriously question the personal hygiene of some of the people bringing in food. How best to be 'polite' and not touch their food? It's always obvious who has cooked what...

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  1. Maybe allude to some kind of allergy/sensitivity, I mean either you agree to potluck or not as hard to single out some dishes and not others as people will try to get you to try their contributions. Some people are not comfortable with potluck, bazaars but I have eaten from these sources, streetfood and resto fare (who knows how well cups, cutlery are cleaned) and never gotten sick except when travelling to certain parts of the world. But nowadays I do buy less from bazaars as you never know! I dont think it is just a hygiene question, sometimes you can buy fish or meat from grocery stores and the whole problem starts with that especially if not the freshest. How can one really know about hygiene, lots of people surprisingly do not bother to wash hands when they should and I dont think you can predict which ones. So potluck can be dicey from any participant but probably very few people actually get sick from potluck dinners.

    1 Reply
    1. re: mangoannie

      Actually, if asked, just say no, thank you very much. Never offer an explanation or justification or excuse: it's a pretext for a problem. The impulse to a simple polite decline is a dangerous one....

    2. After years of this conundrum, I now trust that my Magic House protection extends to potlucks, too.

      8 Replies
      1. re: pine time

        'Magic House protection extends to potlucks'...love that!
        I'm a Potluck distruster...and proud of it.
        ; )

        1. re: pine time

          For us the magic house protection extends to tailgaiting. When you tailgate, many of the food safety rules get broken and there's no feasible ways of continually washing hands, etc. No one has ever gotten sick. Tailgaiting is not for germaphobes :-)

          1. re: Janet from Richmond

            Tailgating freaks my husband out. I carry loads of wet naps, and hand sanitizer for everyone, and he can manage.

          2. re: pine time

            Nope, not applicable when the one bringing in the main course is the same one who has been bitterly complaining about a mouse infestation, and has told you that she's pulled 3 mice out of the dog food in the past few days PLUS how she has to sweep the mouse poo out of the kitchen twice a day. I passed her dish...

            1. re: freia

              Ewww - just ewww. I couldn't eat it, either!

                1. re: freia

                  I would pass and give her the exterminators' number!!!

                  1. re: freia

                    Ummm... under those circumstances I think I'd pass too! But I'm not overly-fussy about food hygiene until it officially becomes 'leftovers'. Many's the time we've had leftovers foisted on us, and when we got home I've quietly disposed of them because I don't trust them after they've been sitting out at room temperature for 5 or 6 hours while we socialised.

                2. I always take a little bit- push it around and then toss it. No one's feelings are hurt that way taking home a dish that no one touched. Very important to to tell everyone that everything you ate was wonderful. It's all in how you say it.

                  1. I've eaten at potlucks my whole life and have never gotten sick. Our immune systems are pretty remarkable and can usually deal with a little bit of bad hygiene (unless you've babied it your whole life, then it may not be very strong.)

                    If you look a particular dish though and don't like the look of it, skip it. I think it would be in horrible taste and manners for someone to call you out for not eating their stuff. I would never ever do that. There are so many reasons why someone might not eat a dish, like allergies, personal taste, etc... It would be rude to try to prod someone to try your stuff. If someone asked me why I wasn't eating their food, I would just say my plate got full and I am good--have plenty to eat.

                    I do think you should be careful about lying and saying/alluding that you are allergic or sensitive to something you aren't. So many people do that now that people are starting to not take food allergies seriously. There are people who really do have horrible allergies to things (I have milk and peanut) and all of the people who just use it as an excuse make people numb to it, which adds to the risk for those of us who actually do have an allergy.

                    21 Replies
                    1. re: sisterfunkhaus

                      For me the fake allergy thing is bad because you have to remember which allergies you've said you have (these pot lucks are every few weeks) and you'll have to not eat something great from someone you trust because it has the same ingredient you're supposedly allergic to.

                      Are people really watching who eats what? I would think it's people milling about, taking a little of this, a little of that. You don't have to have a reason not to eat something. Just don't take it. And if the person in question pushes it on you, take a bit... and just mush it into something else on your plate and toss it.

                      I'm doubting this is a fear of getting sick, but rather an ick factor on your part... yes?

                      1. re: sisterfunkhaus

                        I have eaten at potlucks my whole life, and I have been sick exactly once. But I was the only one as far as I know, so I'm not totally sure if it was bad food or not.

                        I think that sisterfunkhaus has the right idea. If you can't bear the thought of eating it, take some, push it around, and when everyone is occupied, toss your remains. I've done this before. And she is right, tell everyone that everything you ate was wonderful. If you really liked something, email whoever brought it the next day to ask for the recipe. Don't make a big deal at the do in front of others.

                        I have found that I have had the most trouble eating stuff made by people I liked the least.

                        And it is best not to dissemble about food allergies, IMHO.

                        1. re: sueatmo

                          "take some, push it around, and when everyone is occupied, toss your remains"

                          I think just politely saying "no thank you" is far better option than throwing out food.

                          1. re: ttoommyy

                            If you are in a group of people you work with every day, and they have all brought their treasured recipes, one or some will notice if you don't sample. Trust me. I'd treat the feelings of my coworkers with a certain amount of care and tact. If it meant I threw out a little food, doing that would be worth it to me. If you politely say "no thank you" to your coworker, you are still going to have to deal with him or her every day, and you have refused to eat his or her special party food.

                            1. re: sueatmo

                              Are coworkers really this uptight about who eats what? At our potlucks, many, many folks don't try everything, and no one cares. I happen to love my quinoa-spinach-curried sweet potato dish, but I'm really okay if it's not your thing. I'll often hear, "Hey did you try so and so's ____?" followed by, "No, I didn't have any of that..." And it's just never a problem. When faced with a direct offer ("Here, try my quinoa"), a polite no thank you should be just fine. (Of course, there shouldn't be direct offers like that at a potluck--just let people take what they want).

                              1. re: debbiel

                                It probably depends on the age of the coworkers, and gender. I had to supervise women and I just never wanted any issues. It is such a simple thing to preserve feelings. These threads are for people to express opinions, and I've noticed that we tend to respond to issues from our own experience. It is entirely possible that my experience doesn't jibe with yours.

                                1. re: sueatmo

                                  The worst I ever supervised was man who had gone to culinary school. He thought everything he did was wonderful and we all should try it. Actually most of his food sucked big time. But he was a little light in the loafers and always got in a snit and pouted worse than any woman if someone didn't try his food.

                                  1. re: vafarmwife

                                    That's the worst. Unfortunately, not everyone who has gone to culinary school can actually cook, but somehow, the ones who can't are always the ones who throw it around and act like they are a better cook than anyone in the room b/c they went to school. People at a gathering were raving about my food and the jealous young, wet nosed culinary school douche who is my grandfather's roommate was so jealous he tried so hard to steal the thunder and make me feel like I wasn't as good, assumed I didn't know about technique, etc... I told him that when he's been cooking AND studying proper culinary technique for 20+ years ( I have and would put my skills up against any general chef), then he could talk to me about cooking. He shut up quickly.

                                2. re: debbiel

                                  That's what I was thinking, too. I've never noticed what people take and have never heard anyone offended that someone didn't eat their dish. Iv'e passed around a platter of bread and people politely decline. No biggie. If someone took a piece and took a bite and threw it out, fine--they probably didn't care for it. If they took it and tossed it in the trash and I noticed--that would.

                                  To make someone feel good once when they asked if he wanted some cake to bring home, he said sure, I'll take a huge piece. Once we got home, he never touched it. When I asked, he said he didn't want to hurt her feelings and it went in the trash. That bothered me. What's wrong with, "That was delicious but I'm stuffed!"

                                  1. re: debbiel

                                    Oh lord yes. The biggest fights I have ever seen in my worklife (25 years) have been over food. I agree with sueatmo, I always take a sample of everything. That way no one is slighted. It's worth it to me to avoid hurt feelings and passive aggression later on.

                                    1. re: vafarmwife

                                      Wow. I guess I've been very fortunate with the places I've worked over the years.

                                      1. re: debbiel

                                        You have not lived until you have had an employee who was a Wiccan Warlock put a curse on you because you dared to tell him he could not have the Summer Solstice off with pay so he could dance naked around a bonfire with his other witches.. True story.....

                                        1. re: vafarmwife

                                          Oh, trust, me I have some amazing coworker stories. Stories of pompous coworkers, completely socially inept coworkers, trashy coworkers, narcissists, shirkers, self-absorbed, calling people out in meetings, back stabbing...blah blah blah. But never have I seen the kind of potluck behavior that y'all have brought up. In all my work places, folks could be spiteful about many things but not when breaking bread together.

                                          1. re: debbiel

                                            Maybe we've been fortunate enough not to work with people whose egos are dependent on their potluck dishes! Must be very fragile egos.

                                            1. re: chileheadmike

                                              I don't know. I don't what spell he cast.

                                            2. re: vafarmwife

                                              Sounds like religious discrimination to me. Would you say the same for Yom Kippour?

                                              1. re: melpy

                                                Oh please...tone down the polictical correctness squad. He was told he could take a vacation day if he wanted it paid. He was also told he could he could it off without pay. He wanted it as a paid holiday just for him. He was given more than enough consideration believe me. He could sit in the office and chant spells and put curses on people, but if anyone else dared to talk about their religion, he complained.

                                              2. re: vafarmwife

                                                "Wiccan Warlock" is an oxymoron, and actual Wiccans don't curse people. Dancing naked is optional. Sounds like a yo-yo who just wanted a day off and watched alot of Buffy.

                                                Not a wiccan, but have friends who are.

                                          2. re: debbiel

                                            When I bring something to a potluck, I like to look over at the table after we've finished and see that at least half of my contribution has been consumed. That means that I can count it a success because people liked the look of it enough to eat it. But I'm certainly not foisting it on people or taking names to see who walked past without eating some! People at church are starting to ask which dish I made for the potlucks because they know I can cook - it's flattering to my ego, but if the reverse happened I wouldn't blame THEM, just myself.

                                            1. re: Kajikit

                                              It's definitely flattering when people enjoy your cooking and potlucks are nice for that. Your approach is much more appropriate than seeking out victims, so to speak; plus if people approach you, it's much more genuine. I'd seek our your contributions, too!

                                              I brought a BLT panzanella salad to a potluck recently--big pieces of bacon, pieces of crusty bread that had been coated in bacon and baked, tomatoes, cheese and some lettuce. Most people passed by it because they had no idea what it was. A few people started digging in and telling others that it was good and it started disappearing. A couple of people asked around to find out who made it to thank me so that coddled my ego because at first I thought I had made a dish that no one even wanted to try!

                                  2. how many of your colleagues have fallen ill because of one of these potlucks?

                                    Please don't say you have an allergy -- this is, IMO, exactly like the person who parks in a handicapped spot because they're really, really in a hurry today. As the signs on European handicapped spaces say, "If you're going to take my parking place, make sure you take my handicap, too"

                                    If you're going to demur from eating something because you say you have an allergy -- please make sure you actually have the allergy in question.

                                    Not liking something, or trying to cut something out of your diet for whatever the diet-of-the-week is is fine. Just cut to the chase and say you don't like it or you're trying to avoid it because of your diet-of-the-week.

                                    Claiming that it's because of an allergy devalues the problem that those who have real, genuine, life-threatening food allergies.

                                    Getting the squicks is child's play aside of anaphylactic shock.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: sunshine842

                                      Yes, exactly. I hate it when we go out with my MIL, who gives a long list of fake allergies that change monthly, and then my son has to explain his very real life-threatening nut allergies. I'm always afraid the waitstaff and cooks will just assume we're high maintenance and let things slide.

                                      WRT to the potluck dilemma, I never take certain dishes due to preference. Everyone has preferences and no one is hurt if you don't take from their offering. Who cares why you're not eating Typhoid Mary's mac and cheese? You don't have to say a word.

                                    2. How many dishes are there? If there are quite a few, it seems most people wouldn't notice. I've never looked to see who tried or didn't try my dish and if someone didn't, I'm not offended. I don't believe in wasting food and it would bother me more if someone took some of my dish and then tossed it. We all have our personal tastes, maybe someone doesn't like cheese or whatever is in the dish.

                                      The allergies thing first casts doubt on people who really do have them and secondly, you're going to eat w/ these people again. If you tell John, "Oh, I have pickle allergies" and next time he tells you, "I knew you had pickle allergies so I found a great recipe so you can have it now. I felt so bad last time!" then you'd be stuck and you've dug yourself in.

                                      1. just because you know the person such as your mum, neighbor, best friends does not mean they are clean and hygienic, and your coworker might be a disinfectant/clorox nut. We have no clue how clean a restaurant is, even passing this year's inspection means nothing. Don't any of you ever eat abroad, street food, bake sale foods? Is your own kitchen and food handling practice that great? I really don't remember the last time I got any kind of stomach bug or food poisoning and I'm not that fussy about who has prepped my food as long as I didn't see any unsafe practice I am fine. Do you really think the cloth that wipes the milk steamer at Sbux isn't full of bacteria or the cloths that supposedly cleans the diner tables is clean?

                                        1. Most restaurant kitchens are teeming with germs.

                                          Unless you have a compromised immunity, live a little and eat a little.

                                          1. It has never occurred to me that not taking a helping of everyone's offering was in any way rude or needed an explanation. I'm less concerned with hygene than the fact that some people's food just doesn't look good or sound like anything I'm interested in eating.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: LeoLioness

                                              I agree..it's not something that has ever occurred to me. We have potlucks occasionally at work and no one takes something of everything..and no one is really paying attention to what others are eating..save for one woman who wants everyone to try her dish. Fortunately..she's a great cook so it is never an issue.
                                              I have a life threatening food allergy..so one thing I will only sample dishes made by people who I trust know their ingredients.

                                              1. re: SimplyMarie

                                                Me three. When I go to a potluck I don't always take some of everything and never thought I was being "impolite." Everyone has their food likes/dislikes/quirks so I figure there's nothing to comment about either way.

                                              2. re: LeoLioness

                                                Exactly, just politely decline.
                                                "No thank you."
                                                "I'll get some if I go back for seconds."
                                                "Oh I didn't see it."
                                                "So many good things to try, I don't have room for it all"

                                                Never occcured to me that it would be rude not to try something. But most likely if I saw an untouched dish I would take a scoop so that the owner wouldn't be disappointed. This year I was a little sad to see my contribution to the Thanksgiving party come home with the BF basically untouched due to an unexpected abundance of offerings (however they were quickly gobbled up the following day when they made a return).

                                              3. Sorry, I'm watching my weight, I've already taken more than I should have.

                                                  1. What's wrong with just not taking a certain food if you're concerned about its safety? No one likes everything and that's perfectly okay. People will just assume that nycgal doesn't like cream sauce or whatever. No big deal. Most people at potlucks are concerned that they'll get enough of that yummy trifle and won't notice what others are eating.

                                                    1. I would just ignore the dishes I was unsure about. In the past I don't think I've really noticed who took some of my dish and who didn't. I know some people keep track though (I had a friend scold me recently for not taking more of her dish last week)...so ditto others: I'm too full, I'm watching my weight, I'll see if I'm up for another plateful...people get distracted and it'll likely go unnoticed. Good luck and keep us updated!

                                                      1. I'm a total food snob I guess. the #1 reason I don't participate in potlucks (and here at work we have about 4 of them a year, pretty big too) is because everyone just brings in pre-prepared stuff or "assembly" food. Overly dried cut veggies from a tray in the store. Slimy bagged salad with ranch dressing, which they threw in some craisins or something to make it seem interesting. That thing with the nasty roll out pizza dough and the cream cheese and the raw veggies. "buffalo chicken dip." The sickly sweet broccoli salad with the bacon and cheese and onions and raisins. That salad with the ramen noodles and almonds and soy sauce. Dozens of store-bought tubs of corn syrup laden potato and macaroni salad. Grocery store cake, which is as tasteless and mind-numbing as the list of unpronounceable ingredients. A bag of frozen meatballs with "swedish" sauce on them in a crok pot. Cocktail wienies in BBQ sauce. It's just all completely unpalatable to me and not at all tempting. I left a number of these hungry and then finally decided I'd accept the anti-social badge and just skip them from now on. Nobody makes anything for them anymore! The annual "bake sale" at work features trays of store bought cookies still in their plastic eggshell containers, brownies from a box mix, etc. Call my snobby, go ahead, I don't mind.

                                                        8 Replies
                                                        1. re: rockandroller1

                                                          I love that sickly sweet broccoli salad! It's almost like a dessert only it's broccoli and it's got bacon in it. I have been to some great pot lucks, mostly I'd have to say, ones where most of the people didn't grow up in the US and brought their own native cuisine that they'd grown up eating and making. One we had representation from Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Korea, Mexico, Italy and then various American desserts. Sure there were smatterings of the regular potluck stuff but there was some great food, too. It's a yearly Christmas thing (now that I think of it, it's pretty ironic since few of the people celebrate Christmas).

                                                          1. re: chowser

                                                            My Mom worked for 20 years in the department of a large university that had a high number of international students, and what you describe is what their holiday party was like. The setting was always blah as it was held in the department library, but the food was always an adventure and people really enjoyed sharing and explaining their dishes. Very enjoyable.

                                                            1. re: rockandroller1

                                                              Those are the potlucks that shouldn't be missed.

                                                              BTW, I love your synopsis of potluck food. Lately, we've seen a large number of Domino's pizza, chicken nuggets (from all over frozen up through Chik Fil A), Popeye's fried chicken.

                                                              1. re: rockandroller1

                                                                My husband's a professor in a department with no Americans (including himself). The potlucks are AMAZING! About a dozen nationalities are represented and I've learned more about authentic ethnic cuisine at these gatherings than any restaurants I've been to in the past 40+ years. Those I don't want to miss and will "take the chance" that something is less than sanitary and trust my healthy immune system.

                                                                In response to the OP - At my work... there is even a person whose children were taken because of conditions of squalor in the home. He keeps his fingernails long and dirty. I clean the keyboard after he's touched it... no way I'm going to eat his food that he brings in for potlucks. That may sound mean, but if they live in squalor and his nails are perpetually dirty, the food cannot be sanitary. I won't even put a little on my plate. I am by no means a germaphobe, but some things are so unappetizing that it makes it impossible to eat.

                                                                Like others, the potlucks at my workplace are filled with processed, packaged, artificial foods anyway. I have no problem, on the rare occasion that I attend one, to eat my own food and a couple of others' foods (that I know were scratch-made) and not worry if others care if I taste theirs or not. If people want others to try their food, they should cook, not assemble and make it appetizing. I guess like you, rockandroller1, I don't really care if it's seen as food snobbery. I only have so many calories a day to consume. I'm not going to waste them on foods I don't want to eat.

                                                            2. re: rockandroller1

                                                              I guess this gets filed along with the thread about having friends who aren't chowhounds.

                                                              1. re: sunshine842

                                                                I think 80% of the potlucks I attend aren't with friends but with activities, mostly for children. I guess that's another plug for not having kids.

                                                              2. re: rockandroller1

                                                                I wouldn't like that food either. What a disappointment to find food you could have bought for yourself if you wanted to. Maybe 4 per year is too many for everyone to happily contribute to.

                                                                1. re: rockandroller1

                                                                  That literally describes 90% of our last potluck menu. Desperately trying to come up with something for the one on Thursday but nobody likes my weird food.

                                                                2. As we've been told since childhood, if you can't get away politely without taking something you don't want, take a tiny bit and either push it around on your plate without eating it, or wait till you're not being watched and dispose of it in a napkin or a potted plant or wherever.

                                                                  1. I guess I don't understand why it's important what food anyone eats at a potluck. Any time that I'm concerned, I eat what I've contributed, and that's it. No one ever asks why.
                                                                    And, I suppose, my approach to a work-related potluck would be to attend as a professional obligation, and do as I do in other quasi-social occasions: eat something before/afterwards.

                                                                    1. When chatting with others at the potluck and someone asks you if you tried Gertrude's "meatball surprise?????"........you glance at Gertrude "standing guard" at the end of the potluck table....her stained, yellow claw like fingernails grip her overflowing paper plate, her protruding nose hairs remind you of cat whiskers as they seem to bounce to and fro with her intense, rhythmic chewing...she appears to be in a private "race" of some sort, her beady little eyes are focused on *who* is taking *what*......you are thankful that she wore her bottom teeth today after what happened at the last potluck......

                                                                      You simply smile politely and say -"Oh, no, my goodness, I just haven't had the chance to try those meatballs yet!!!!"

                                                                        1. re: rockandroller1

                                                                          I don't eat the green, opaque thing in the jello mold, but to the truth, the only time I got really sick was eating a tuna nicoise in a very fancy restaurant in the south of France. It was 95 degrees on the terrasse and I should have known better.

                                                                          1. re: rockandroller1

                                                                            I read that article early yesterday morning. Not having been to a bake sale since W's daddy presided over the photo ops in the oval office, I found it both frightening and funny. Frankly, I'm not sure that knowing that today's uber-mommies are spending a hundred bucks on cupcakes to raise sixty bucks for a school gives me much hope for the potential of their offspring (or the future of our nation). Nevertheless, it does make me smile.

                                                                            1. re: MGZ

                                                                              I agree...maybe I'm the weird one, but I figure those are the moms that should just give the hundred bucks to the school...No baking, no ordering, no running around to pick stuff up, the school gets their money, and you don't look like an idiot. Problem(s) solved.

                                                                            2. re: rockandroller1

                                                                              That was a good article. Although, store bought might suit the OP in some cases better. My pet peeve for more organized potlucks, eg. family and friend get togethers is when non-bakers sign up for dessert or bread (unless it's really good from a bakery). My SIL brought frozen Smith pies to Thanksgiving one year. Really? There are a lot of bakers in the family--sign up to bring soda if you just want to go to the grocery store. My Italian teacher, for our potluck, has been bold and said no store bought goods for desserts, unless it's special, eg no Safeway biscotti.

                                                                              1. re: chowser

                                                                                I am a Spanish teacher and I have a strict homemade rule for our Cultural food day. If you want to bring salsa make salsa don't open a jar. The rule also states that te student is supposed to make the majority of the dish themselves but that never really happens.

                                                                            3. Some potlucks are good, some are terrible. One of my favorite meals, ever, was at a very rural church potluck thrown for some kids I was chaperoning on a mission trip. It was August, and the abundance of delicious homemade vegetable offerings overwhelms me just thinking about it. Tomato pie, sliced tomatoes with onions and fresh herbs, green beans every which way, corn casseroles, corn breads, greens, zucchini, fried okra, salt roasted new potatoes, homemade fried chicken, berry cobblers and homemade ice cream. One of the best meals of my life. I have no idea what kind of hygiene these folks practiced, but it was one of the best meals of my life. That single meal made me rethink the whole potluck experience.

                                                                              2 Replies
                                                                              1. re: jeanmarieok

                                                                                Yum! I too have been to some great potlucks.
                                                                                This is the third consecutive day that tomato pie has come up in my world. And here I sit in the midwest in December, months and months away from a tomato pie. <sigh>

                                                                                1. re: debbiel

                                                                                  A seasonal tomato pie is a wonderful thing.

                                                                              2. Last night was our huge company potluck. There must have been 25 entrees and 15 desserts. I didn't sample any of the desserts, but the entrees were all amazing. Everything was homemade (some not entirely, but still...like the crockpot meatball things, which I happen to love). I was really impressed!

                                                                                2 Replies
                                                                                  1. re: UTgal

                                                                                    on a similar note, my scuba diving club had our annual holiday potluck last night. The couple whose home the party was at provided a turkey done in their smoker (yum!) and homemade eggnog, the rest of us brought turkey-dinner related sides and/or desserts, plus whatever we wanted to drink. There were perhaps thirty people there, and at least ten desserts. After the rich eggnog plus turkey and all the trimmings (including some of these best gravy I've ever tasted: you better believe that disappeared in a hurry!) there is *no* way I could have even tasted all of the desserts. I just took a tiny piece of the two that appealed the most to me. I am quite sure no one was offended that I didn't taste 'their' particular dessert.

                                                                                    Of course, we were all there to catch up with old friends and plan new adventures. I suppose that in a work environment it is possible that there are people who see the potluck as yet another opportunity to practice office politics. If one works at such a place, trying to sample a bit of everything or at least as much as possible might make more sense to me. But really, unless it is a small group, how could you really do justice to sampling all the offerings?