Dining Out: All-You-Can-Eat Buffets

What’s not to love at those all-you-can-eat buffets? Well, the calorie overload, for one. I enjoy a big buffet as much as the next gal (especially in Vegas!), but there's nothing good about walking away overstuffed. Here are some tips for your next trip up to the buffet table.

What’s not to love at those all-you-can-eat buffets? Well, the calorie overload, for one. I enjoy a big buffet as much as the next gal (especially in Vegas!), but there's nothing good about walking away overstuffed. Here are some tips for your next trip up to the table.

Be Prepared

Sure, you want to get your money's worth from an all-you-can-eat offer, but there's nothing good about starving yourself all day to save calories so you can stuff your face later. This approach will backfire -- in fact, numerous studies show that when folks skip meals and are extremely hungry, they’ll overeat at the next meal.

Be sure to stick to well-balanced meals (including breakfast) on a day you plan to hit a buffet. You don't need to have large, decadent meals -- just enough to keep you satisfied. If you feel like you're “starving” before going out, have a piece of fruit, yogurt or a small, healthy snack. Once you have your hunger under control, you’re better prepared to make sensible choices and really enjoy your food.

Scout It Out

There’s so much food piled on those buffet tables and often lots of variety. You don’t need to eat everything! Before starting, take a few minutes to walk around and check out all the options. You might discover some hidden stations in the back that serve the really good stuff.  Don’t forget to scope out the the dessert table, too. I'm a chocoholic, and if I discover there's no chocolate dessert, sometimes I'll go for an extra spoonful of a favorite dish instead.

Many menus, especially chain restaurants, now list the nutrition facts for their dishes. Read the fine print and pay strict attention to the serving size. One other biggie: food safety! I can’t eat anywhere that looks dirty or like the food is “old” or dry -- like it's been sitting out for hours or really been poked at. Here are some of our tips on buffet etiquette and safety.

Kicking Off Your Meal

Soups and salads are typical starters. Choose between a soup OR salad -- you don’t need both unless that's the whole meal. If you're watching calories closely, choose soups that are broth-based and not creamy. Some healthier choices are chicken noodle or chicken rice, vegetable, minestrone and black bean. If you’re eye is on a potato leek, butternut squash or pea soup, ask the servers if cream was used; if so, consider lowering your serving size.

If you opt for a salad, pile up those veggies on your plate but beware of the extra toppings. Choose one or two higher-calorie add-ons such as avocado, cheese, sunflower seeds and beans. For the dressing, stick with a tablespoon or two of a vinaigrette such as balsamic or red wine. Skip the 80 calorie dinner roll and butter — there’s so much more to choose from. They're not worth the calories usually.

Balance Your Entree

You main plate should be a healthy mix of protein, carbohydrates and veggies. Chicken breast and baked or grilled fish are better choices than the fried popcorn shrimp (obviously). If you find a creamy sauce or fried option that you must have, take a few pieces or a small spoonful. Many of the large cuts of meat sliced in front of you (e.g. turkey and roast beef) are lower in fat and aren’t drowning in sauces. Ask for the server for two or three ounces; this will leave room for other stuff. Crab legs, grilled shrimp and other non-fried seafood dishes are also very low in fat — just go easy on the sauces or pasta often served alongside.

Once you’ve chosen your protein, you’ll want some carbs. Whole grains such as brown rice are good but may not be available. Try a higher-fiber choices like baked potato with the skin. Luckily, you can control the portions at buffets. Sometimes those huge restaurant servings tempt you to eat it all. If you make the choice to keep it smaller at the beginning, you'll do yourself a favor.

For carbs, a half of a baked potato (with the skin) or a spoonful of pasta is all you need. Some other good choices are pasta primavera, quinoa or barley salad, baked potato wedges (with the skin). Some not-so good choices are those foods drowning in mayo such potato and macaroni salad.

To balance it out, pile on the veggies -- look for sides without butter or oodles of oil added. Asparagus, string beans, broccoli or any steamed or grilled veggie are better options. Watch out for items with words like “buttered,” “creamed” or “crispy” in the title.

Drink Up

With those free refills, you can really rack up the calories on sugary beverages. Pass on regular sodas, sweetened iced teas, juices and lemonades. Instead, choose water, sparkling water, unsweetened iced tea, tea, coffee or a bit of diet soda. Large sodas can have more than 300 calories -- I would rather use those calories on a yummy dessert!

Sweet Ending

At this point in the meal, you should feel full but not so stuffed that you’ll need to roll yourself home. Resist the temptation to pile five desserts on your plate and devour them all. If you’ve scoured the choices, choose one or two absolute favorites. Fruit-based desserts such as mixed berries with a dollop of whipped cream or a poached fruit are your best bets. If you’ve gotta have a high-fat dessert, take a few spoonfuls and push the dish away. Or if you want variety, ask your dinner companions to pick up different desserts and share.

TELL US: What are your tricks to eat healthy at buffets?
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