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How to Eat Well at a Buffet: A Sensible Guide

Pieter Breugal the Elder painted this peasant wedding feast, complete with unlimited porridge pies and bagpipes, in 1567.

Pieter Breugal the Elder painted this peasant wedding feast, complete with unlimited porridge pies and bagpipes, in 1567.

9 Tips for a Good Buffet Experience

Many restaurants offer an "all you can eat" buffet meal with a set price. It can be a good value, especially if you stay aware of what you are eating.

These restaurants can make money because they normally need fewer employees than a traditional eatery. They don't need servers to take orders and wait tables. Employees are expensive.

As a veteran eater of many endless buffets, I have some recommendations to help you make the most of your buffet experience. The tips below could help you avoid some of the "mistakes" that many buffet diners make.

Getting Started

1. Don't starve yourself before going to the buffet.

Meals eaten earlier in the day should be light and moderate. If you are planning to eat a lot at the buffet, you should be hydrated, so drink water beforehand. Proper digestion requires water. Gassy soda drinks or alcohol will not improve your buffet adventure.

2. Get an overview.

When you arrive at the dining venue, salads are usually right up front. Fresh raw vegetables are good for you, but if you are getting a lot of filling iceberg lettuce and hard bread croutons, you might be full before you get to the seafood and prime rib. If you look around and know what is ahead, you can focus on the "good stuff." (More about salads later.)

3. Take small portions.

If the buffet has unlimited refills, as most do, you can always go back. You don't want to get stuck with a large serving of macaroni and cheese that doesn't taste as good as it looks.

4. Watch the starch.

Dishes like potatoes, rice, pasta, and bread are inexpensive and filling (like iceberg lettuce); the restaurant hopes you take a lot of these inexpensive items, so you have less room for the more expensive offerings.

Getting Into It

5. Choose foods that you do not cook at home for yourself.

I saw a man at a rather pricey breakfast buffet with a plate piled high with scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. He completely skipped the smoked salmon with caviar, fresh mangoes and papaya, grilled trout with sautéed mushrooms, and the cream cheese cherry blintzes.

So, you say, bacon and toast was what he liked, but why pay 35 bucks for something you could get at the nearby diner for $2.99?

6. Try to eat slowly and don't overeat.

I know this is a tough one, almost impossible, but you can suffer later if you don't use a little selectivity and restraint.

Taking a probiotic capsule, drinking some herbal tea, or using your favorite digestive aid might be a good idea. Sit still for a moment. Take a few deep breaths and wait at least a minute or two before going back for the refill.

You CAN have it all, but try not to.

7. Be selective.

This is the time for a little self-restraint. Try to be aware of which foods are way, way, way too high in calories and fat.

The challenge is in trying to eat only things that are good for you. When there is a wide selection, you should be able to do it. The "bad" things should at least be in much smaller portions.

If you are gulping down quarts of soft drinks and piling up french fries on your plate, and starting on your third serving of chili, you might be abusing the buffet experience. Remember, too, that the sodas are full of filling gas.

Try a Serving of Common Sense

8. Clean your plate.

It is considered bad manners to leave buffet food uneaten on your plate, so choose carefully. The unwritten rule is "you take it, you eat it," so make sure it is something you really want.

Of course, there are times when one certain food does not meet your expectations, and that is understandable. If one particular thing tastes a little "off" or is not what you thought it was, it is reasonable to push it aside.

Some of the "bargain buffets" will charge you extra (by weight) for wasted food. Of course, "doggie bags" are not acceptable at all-you-can-eat venues. Bones, shells and other inedible parts are exempt from the rule.

Finish up with desserts.

Finish up with desserts.

Finishing Up

9. Desserts to Die For

Buffet desserts are usually small portions, but this is still the most dangerous part of a buffet experience. Some people are determined to sample all of them. (Bad idea.)

The fat and sugar calories can be staggering. This is the most important place to practice self-control even if you have failed up to this point.

A little frozen yogurt might be good for digestion, or maybe some fresh fruit if you need something sweet.

You will feel more virtuous if you resist, especially if you have already eaten enough for a week. (Oops, someone saw me take that chocolate thing.)

Not All Buffets Are Created Equal

There are many kinds of buffets, ranging from the luxury hotel Sunday brunch to the bargain "hometown" diners. The best thing about all of them is that you can actually see what you will eat before your plate hits the table. Here are some types you may encounter:

Other Types of Buffets

In a Casino

These are often the best bargain for your money, with a good and varied selection of food. You can go select your prime rib and seafood dinner with fresh vegetables and special side dishes at a much lower price than you would pay at a top restaurant for a comparable meal.

I believe these buffets are designed to make you so full and satisfied that you will subsequently sit on a stool and feed money to a slot machine for endless hours. You may not feel hungry until well past another two full mealtimes.

Casino Buffets are often very affordable. In fact, casinos probably make no money at all on their buffets because their main purpose is to get you inside the building to gamble.

You may feel so bad about eating so much for such a small price that you rationalize the need to feed the slots. This bargain meal could get expensive.

Invariably casino buffet diners have to pass through the gaming area to reach the eating area. This is no accident. Be advised that children may not be allowed.

Asian Buffets

These are generally at a good value as far as price and nutrition. Overall, Asian food traditions are healthier than most Western menus. Lots of vegetables, seafood with vegetables and tasty bits of meat with veggies are often found.

Meat is often used as more of a condiment than a main ingredient, but it can be very tasty and satisfying, as well as being fresh and healthful.

Any dairy products will be minimal or absent, so there won't be high-calorie cream sauces or gravies. You can almost feel virtuous stuffing yourself at these places, especially if you go easy on batter-coated, deep-fried selections.

The Farmhouse Slant

There is a buffet restaurant called Hodel's in Bakersfield, California, that is one of a kind. It is a family-owned business that has been in existence for many years. On the weekends, they serve thousands of people a day, yet the place seems rather small and cozy.

They have the buffet thing down, and their prices are reasonable. The place is clean, bright and comfortable, and the selection is great. Located in the southern end of the Central Valley, California's great agricultural area, Hodel's takes full advantage of the great variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products produced locally. If you are traveling through Bakersfield, California, it's worth stopping at Hodel's.

The Grand Sunday Brunch-- The Majestic Awahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. Pricey , but delicious.

The Grand Sunday Brunch-- The Majestic Awahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. Pricey , but delicious.

Big Hotel Sunday Brunch

Large hotels often feature a Sunday brunch served buffet style. It may include champagne and feature gourmet dishes, including fresh seafoods like smoked salmon, crab legs, oysters and shrimp.

Tenaya Lodge Resort, near the south entrance to Yosemite National Park in California, has a few special occasion brunches during the year (Mother's Day and Easter, for instance), which have fabulous food, ice sculptures, fresh flowers and live music. I think you will pay more than $30 per person, champagne is included, and reservations are recommended.

If you want to go beyond this and eat in a beautiful national landmark, you can try the Majestic Yosemite Hotel Sunday brunch in Yosemite Valley. Again, you will find fabulous food in a spectacular setting. Last time I checked, it was $45 per person (champagne not included).

(Note: Since I first wrote this article, I have returned to both hotels. Though both are still quite good in quality, I think they have cut back quite a bit on their offerings. Check websites before you visit.)

Doesn't this look enticing and colorful?

Doesn't this look enticing and colorful?

The Chain Restaurant Variety

This is usually the most affordable buffet. Depend on a filling "home-style" meal with potatoes, gravy and fried chicken, meatloaf, ribs, perhaps some Mexican dishes as well as many other entrees.

Their salad bar (mentioned earlier) looks enticing, colorful, cruciferous, and healthy. As previously noted, the salad bar is up front, where patrons encounter it first before seeing the entrees. After you have looked over the whole site, choose a salad that is limited to a few of the best ingredients.

My favorite choice is a small bunch of spinach leaves, some raw cauliflower and broccoli, red onions, pickled beets, black olives with oil and vinegar dressing and some sunflower seeds.

With that combination, I have a bunch of superfoods, all of them good for me, and I'm still leaving room for more carefully selected good stuff. (And this helps me justify the chocolate thing I will choose at the end.)

Look for freshness with deeply colored veggies. I will skip the jello cubes, iceberg lettuce, bacon bits, potato salad, creamy dressings and a lot of other things. If the tomatoes look ripe and fresh, I might add them. Perhaps the fresh fruit will be good, too.

I have found this particular buffet has a lot of dishes I can easily pass up. I'm not too fond of meatloaf or gravy—too many possibilities for mystery ingredients. Their broiled chicken and fish are fine. The soups are pretty good, but this is one place where the salad may be the best part.

The Pizza Buffet

Some pizza chains offer an unlimited buffet for about eight dollars. It usually includes a salad bar, pizzas with several kinds of toppings, a beverage and some twisted-up garlic bread sticks and gooey cinnamon twists.

It's probably best to skip the dough twists since there's no way they could have any nutritionally redeeming value; plus, you are already getting dough with the pizza, even if they have a thin crust.

The strategy, again, is selecting the best salad bar and planning for the pizza slices of your choice after an overview. The slices are cut narrow, and there might be up to 10 different choices. There are vegetarian varieties, ham and pineapple, chicken garlic alfredo, plus some of the more traditional combinations. I personally minimize the salami, pepperoni and sausage, looking for the chicken and veggie selections. The one we visit occasionally takes a request for the next pizza to hit the buffet (chicken, garlic, veggie) and will bring it to your table for the first choice.

The beverages are mostly soft drinks, lemonade or sweet tea in the usual fast food drink fountains. Tap beer may be available for an extra charge. If you are going for pizza with several other people, it gives the advantage of letting everyone choose their favorite kinds.

Invite a few friends in. Make them wear color-coordinated clothes. Ask them to bring their favorite dish.

Invite a few friends in. Make them wear color-coordinated clothes. Ask them to bring their favorite dish.

Some Additional Thoughts

  • Don't go to any of these in a starved mode: It will be harder to eat slowly and semi-sensibly if you have skipped a meal or two before picking up the buffet plate.
  • Get an overview of the offerings before loading up on the first thing you see. Remember to avoid "over-enjoying." If you do, you will be miserable later, especially with fried or rich dishes.
  • Try something you wouldn't cook for yourself, or to eat something that the rest of your family doesn't like-- perhaps a chance to find out if you really like oysters.
  • Stage your own buffet: Maybe the best idea is to plan your own easily-served buffet party. Ask everyone to bring something to share and make it a party with people you enjoy visiting with.

If you eat like this three or four times a year at the most, that is probably plenty. When you go to an unlimited buffet, you will certainly see many people who have visited far too often.

Keep some of these things in mind, and learn to enjoy it even more with just a bit of restraint.

Questions & Answers

Question: How do you get food in a garde manger buffet?

Answer: I guess that would depend upon the management of the restaurant. I would think the cold food buffet would usually have the same organization as any other, with customers taking a plate and making their selections.

Question: What's the point of going to a buffet if you're health conscious?

Answer: If you are on a very restricted diet, you probably don't go. If you are with a group of friends who want you to go, you have a choice. You can stay home, or you can go and be selective as to your choices. If they offer a lot of fresh raw choices and you know how to eat healthy you might just go for the socialization.