How to Share Food with Other People in the Least Gross Way Possible, According to an Expert

From birthday cake to charcuterie plates, a chef and a public health official explore strategies for (politely!) staying safe when you're eating communal food.

A group of people sharing food
Photo: Maskot / Getty Images

"If I go to a potluck, I eat what I bring," says Justin Herndon, a public health officer who has spent no small portion of his career inspecting food service operations. And that was even before the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Herndon claims that he can compartmentalize and shelve his public health officer hat on occasion, so he can mingle and participate in normal, finger-food consuming, gathering in an uninspected home kitchen society. But after having shared hundreds of meals with him, as he happens to be my sister's boyfriend, I am skeptical. I am a ServSafe Manager-certified chef by trade who spent seven years operating a food truck and then a restaurant in Philadelphia. I know the health code very, very well. I'll certainly make sure I wash my hands with gusto in warm water (110-120 degrees) while humming "Happy Birthday" twice whenever I have Herndon over for dinner, though most recently, the tune fixed in my mind has been Christopher Mills singing "You can't eat at everybody house" in his viral TikTok videos as he reacts in horror to stitched scenarios of raw ground beef being pressed onto countertops by bare hands and spaghetti being strained through a toilet seat.

As a chef who oversaw (and prepared my staff) for countless health inspections, I'm often unable to compartmentalize. Food trucks set up at temporary special events in Philadelphia are required to be inspected at every single permitted event, in contrast with the one — yes, one — time each year brick-and-mortar restaurants require inspection. This meant that I oversaw inspections up to five times a week (we did a lot of events). When I dine out or go over to someone's house for dinner, I feel like I see everything, every potential health code violation, but I can only begin to imagine the hyper violation vision Herndon must have. I sat him down and gave him a multitude of scenarios to navigate out of. You can decide for yourself how willing you are to take his advice in the name of food safety, and the degree of grace (and dishonesty) you choose to wield in each situation.

Scenario: You're at a birthday party with a lot of people you don't know. There's a birthday cake. Candles were blown out. Someone hands you a slice. What do you do?

Herndon says, "I say thank you and then walk to the next room that has a trash can. If this happened pre-COVID, I would have asked myself, 'Do I know the person who blew out the candles?' and maybe consider eating it. If they did so now, I would give them a lecture about how that's inappropriate and then I would try to convince other people to not eat the cake. And then I would recommend candle-less birthday cakes in the future. COVID is spread through droplets and there are definitely droplets on that cake. If a four-year-old blew out those candles, there are wads of spit on that cake, never mind droplets."

Scenario: You go to a party that has cheese boards and grazing boards laid out as appetizers. You're famished. There's no other food available. What is your plan?

"Is there charcuterie?" he asks. "I would eat the charcuterie because it's not going to go bad on me as it sits out. Yes, it might be worse for me than COVID or germs." But from a food safety standpoint, charcuterie is low risk. Herndon also asks, "Are there tongs? Is there stuff in the back that hasn't been touched yet? If there are utensils available, I'll eat but I'm going to focus on what no one else is eating. All the stuff in the front, everyone is looking down and breathing on. If it's in the back, then it's not as handled. If it's something people don't like, then it's forgotten about and not touched. But most likely, I'd wait to eat until I got home."

Scenario: You're thirsty and there's a shared drink dispenser.

"I would like to know that people can't go up there with a used glass and refill their drinks," says Herndon. My own saliva is all over my glass and if I hit the spout with my glass and I was sick, I'd be transferring those germs. Not to mention the handle that everyone is touching to dispense their drinks."

Scenario: Thanksgiving dinner. It's a potluck. The food has been sitting out for two hours. What goes through your mind?

"It's Thanksgiving so I'm familiar with the people. It's only been two hours? Then I'm going to town," says Herdon. "If it's a family event, I've already lectured and harassed them enough. If it's a friend's potluck, I'd eat what I brought."

How do you get out of sticky situations if you're not comfortable eating the food?

"Sometimes I'll find myself at a friend of a friend's house and I'm not happy with the cleanliness of the environment. I then have to figure out how to not eat dinner," admits Herndon.

Here's what Herndon would do:

  • Straight up lie. "I'd probably fake bad diarrhea or something. Or I'd tell them I'm intermittent fasting, but I didn't want to be rude and not show up. But since I'm on hour 48 of a 72 hour fast, I can't give up now. You can use that one in all scenarios. I've also used 'I'm trying out vegan this week.'"
  • When coworkers would ask him out for lunch at the height of the pandemic, he would say, "I only eat one meal a day and that's dinner."
  • What if someone you don't know hugs you? "I stand stiffly and remind them about COVID."

So how do you throw a COVID-friendly party that would make your friends who are public health officers comfortable? Have it outdoors, make masks available so anyone who wishes to use one doesn't feel like a weirdo, require COVID tests of your guests, have a multitude of tongs at the ready, remind everyone to use clean glasses at the punch dispenser, and maybe consider a candle-less birthday cake.

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