Food poisoning is a real risk when traveling. It happens to everyone at some point, including the adventurous who enjoy sampling the local foods, but more often to tourists.
Food poisoning can ruin a vacation or any experience depending on the severity of the attack. Not only are you in a new place but you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself, not dealing with horrible stomach issues.
Although, my worst cases of food poisoning happened right at home in the US, not while traveling. Oh, I’ve had mild cases during my trips but never any of the debilitating attacks that left me puking up my guts and sitting on the toilet for several days like I did right at home in the good ole’ USA.
I will say that both David and I were a little worried that we would end up very sick when we visited Morocco. The cleanliness and food handling practices are very different from those in most Western countries.
Morocco presents two faces. The first is the nice clean areas for the tourists. The second is the areas where the locals live. If you stay in the tourist areas, you’ll never experience the real Morocco which is a completely different world. I highly recommend getting away from the tourist areas even though it can be a little shocking.
It’s not uncommon to see raw sewerage, antifreeze from auto repair shops and other unknown liquids seeping around in the streets, close to or under boxes of produce. Not to mention, flowing down the river areas. The same rivers where the city water supply comes from.
Food sanitation was one of the hardest things we dealt with in Morocco. Eating at restaurants is a crap shoot. Hot water is rare in both restaurants or homes. In fact, the shower is often the only hot water supply in a home and many restaurants use cold water for everything including washing up.
In some ways, the open restaurant kitchens of Morocco are fun because you can watch your food get cooked. In other ways, it’s just plain bad because after I got to see the food preparation which often includes the wait staff/cook grabbing plates from tables, stepping behind the counter, wiping them off with a towel and replating for the next customer. And that same person goes without washing his hands after cutting raw meat to handling the salad he’s serving.
Or scratching his balls! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a server rubbing his crotch and then continue his food preparations. UGHHHH!!!
Buying food is also an adventure. The meat vendors display their meat hanging out the front of the shop, in the full sun for most of the day. They also take your orders, cut up the meat, bag it, take your money and hand you change, all without a pause for washing the hands.
It’s all a learning experience. You soon realize what will potentially cause food poisoning and what won’t. You also come to understand, that sanitation levels in the US are over the top in some ways and you really can do with less, without getting sick or dying. I’m still deciding if that’s a good or bad thing.
Using common sense is the easiest way to avoid food poisoning when traveling.
Wash your hands!
If a restaurant looks overly unclean, don’t eat there.
Avoid undercooked meat and salads. Unfortunately, salad greens are one of the most common sources of food poisoning from any restaurant, anywhere in the world. That being said, I still tend to take the risk. I just like my veggies too much. But I make the decision based on each individual restaurant.
While I use eating in Morocco as my example, these tips for helping to avoid food poisoning while traveling, work for anywhere in the world, including modern Western countries such as the US.
Eat Where the Locals Eat
We’ve had fewer tummy issues when picking the restaurants where the locals eat, rather than those in the tourist areas. Yes, it can be a little uncomfortable if you don’t know the language, but the food usually tastes better and is more authentic. Use your Google translator and get good at pointing. There’s no shame in it!
Pick crowded restaurants and try to always eat at the local meal time. It means the food is fresh and not sitting around. Sitting food equals more harmful bacteria. Look around and order what everyone is ordering. Once again, it will be the fresher food.
Cook Your Own Food
We love cooking, so this is a great option for helping to avoid food poisoning. It gives you the freedom of deciding where to buy your food, how you handle and prepare it. Select the cleanest meat vendors and buy fresh fruits and veggies directly from the farmers. By buying direct, the food is handled less. Less handling means less exposure to bacteria.
I don’t use special fruit/veggie washes for cleaning. I only use tap water and a rough kitchen scrub pad. I also don’t follow the rule of only eating what you can peel or crack out of a shell. We’ve never experienced food poisoning buying locally raised food, even in Morocco. And we’ve eating spinach, lettuce, and strawberries, some of the worst foods for carrying bacteria.
Find a Local Cook
We love using local cooks such as a neighbor. Many are happy to prepare food because it brings in a little extra money and they get to show off their cooking skills. You get the benefits of a home-cooked meal prepared completely authentic. And the meals are cheaper than in the restaurants.
If you’re in a hotel, ask the front desk clerk or the maid if they know someone who is willing to prepare food. Chances are you’ll easily find someone. And because these cooks want you happy, they tend to carefully cook up yummy local dishes for you.
Just don’t forget to compliment the cook about how good the food is. It’s amazing to see their smiles and watch their eyes light up when you express appreciation for their cooking.
Do remember to get an agreed upon price ahead of time.
Some places have treated water out of the tap, some don’t. Depending on sensitive your tummy is, you can choose to try the tap water or drink bottles. We try to drink tap more than bottled because plastic bottles are horrible for the environment. But that being said, we drank only bottled in Morocco. It just wasn’t worth the risk.
I cannot express the healthy benefits of eating yogurt while traveling enough. Or even in your regular home life. Yogurt introduces live bacteria to your system that help with digestion and keeping you healthy. We’ve found eating yogurt regularly is one of the best ways to help avoid tummy issues while traveling.
As an extra tip, try to avoid the ones loaded with sugar. While still good for you and better than not eating it, the amount of sugar added to yogurt is disgusting and unhealthy for the body.
By following these tips, we’ve avoided heavy cases of food poisoning. I wish I could say all but we love eating. A little food poisoning is part of life if you’re going to eat. But you can reduce your risks by following these few tips and being smart.
Happy travels and Bon Appetit.
The weekly market in Trevi, Umbria, Italy
Weekly loot from the souk in Tamraght
The weekly souk in Tamraght where we purchased our fresh fruit and veggies directly from the farmer.