Eating at a buffet is a great way to try new dishes and enjoy a great meal with friends, colleagues, or family. With so many food choices and the option to go back for seconds or thirds, it can be tricky to make healthy decisions. Next time you are at a conference, a wedding, or having dinner with friends at a buffet-style restaurant, take the time to plan ahead and avoid unhealthy, high-calorie dishes. If you survey the buffet, select nutrient-rich foods, and commit to practicing portion control, you can enjoy a healthy meal at a buffet.
Part One of Three:
Surveying the Area
Find a table far away from the buffet. The average person makes three trips to a buffet, but if you sit further away, you are less likely to get up and go back for more servings. If you are dining at a buffet-style restaurant, ask the hostess if you can be seated far away from the buffet table. While at a wedding reception or an event that has open-seating, choose a table that is on the opposite side of the room from the buffet stations.
Keep your back toward the buffet. If sitting far away from the buffet is not an option, try to seat yourself facing the opposite direction. If you cannot see the carving table or the dessert section of a buffet, you may be less enticed by the array of foods available. Keeping your back to the food can be an effective way to prevent you from getting up for another serving and to curb your cravings.
Look over the entire buffet before filling your plate. Before you grab a plate and hop in the buffet line, take a few minutes to scan the entire buffet to review your options. Knowing what is available ahead of time will help stifle the urge to fill your plate with samples and small bites of every dish that looks appealing.
As you look over the buffet, notice where everything is located. Look for the servings of vegetables and fruits first, and then concentrate on adding a lean animal-based or plant-based protein.
Next, think about what whole grains are available, like steamed brown rice, quinoa, or whole wheat pasta.
Part Two of Three:
Controlling Your Portions
Decide how much to eat before you look at the buffet. Your eyes may be bigger than your stomach, so consider how much you would like to eat before glancing at the options. Decide how many times you will permit yourself to visit the buffet. Craft a plan and commit to it before hopping in line.
Perhaps you will allow yourself to have a small starter, one healthy plate, and a small dessert, or perhaps you would like to have two moderately sized plates for dinner.
Imagine your plate is divided in quadrants. When you begin to fill up your plate at a buffet, imagine that the plate is divided into four sections. This will help you visualize what a healthy meal should look like. One half of your plate should be reserved for vegetables and fruits, one quarter of the plate should contain a lean protein, and the last quadrant is reserved for whole grains.
Fill your plate with vegetables and fruits. Focus on filling about half or even three-fourths of these quadrants with vegetables and fruits. Try to fill up on low-calorie, nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits to control your calorie intake while fueling your body.
Portion out proteins. Scan the buffet and look for healthy, lean proteins such as fish, turkey, or chicken. Plan to limit your red meat intake, and avoid processed meats, bacon, and cold cuts. To control your portion sizes, grab a piece of protein that is similar in size to a stacked deck of cards. This should fill about one quadrant of your plate.
Eat a variety of whole grains. Look for whole grains like quinoa, whole wheat pasta, or brown rice to fill up the last quadrant of your plate. Avoid processed grains like white rice, white pasta, and white bread. This should fill up the last quadrant of your plate, and should be similar to the size of a hockey puck.
Start your meal with a cup of soup or a small salad. Enjoy a low-calorie soup or small salad at the beginning of your meal to satiate your hunger and help you control your calorie intake for the rest of the meal. Soups like vegetable soup and broth-based soups are low in calories, and a small salad with fresh, raw vegetables provides a nutrient-dense starter.
Avoid cream-based soups like clam chowder or lobster bisque, which can pack a lot of calories and fat. Visit the soup station at a buffet and grab a cup of tomato puree soup or an egg-drop soup.
If there is a salad bar available, look for dark, leafy greens to serve as your base. Add raw or steamed vegetables like broccoli or peas, and avoid adding cheeses, croutons, and heavy, creamy salad dressings.
Head back to your table and enjoy your starter before plating your main entrée.
Opt for grilled, steamed, or broiled dishes. Skip the fried chicken legs or fish and chips at a buffet. Choose a healthier grilled chicken breast seasoned with herbs or fish that has been broiled with vegetables. At a Chinese buffet, skip the fried vegetables and load up on steamed broccoli, snow peas, and carrots. Avoid piling your plate with noodles or pasta dishes that have been pan-fried or stir-fried.
Fried foods absorb a lot of calories and fat from the hot oil. Over time, consuming them can increase your weight and risk for diseases.
Grilled, baked, and broiled dishes are lower in fat and calories, and they retain much of their nutritional content during cooking.
Avoid dishes covered in marinades, heavy sauces, and salad dressings. Marinades, salad dressings, and heavy or syrupy sauces can be deceivingly high in calories, fat, sodium, and added sugars. Look for dishes that are seasoned with herbs and mixed with steamed vegetables, and avoid salads that are already coated with dressing.
A cup of creamy pasta carbonara, for example, can contain almost 400 calories and over 400 milligrams of sodium. Look for a pasta dish that is lightly coated with a tomato-based sauce instead.
A tablespoon or 15 milliliters (1 fl oz) of ranch dressing can contain around 16 grams of fat and 143 calories. Select a vinaigrette dressing or drizzle a small amount of extra virgin olive oil on your salad.
Say no to soda. An average cup of soda can contain around 300 calories and 19 grams (0.67 oz) of sugar, and lemonade and other fruity drinks can also pack a lot of calories and sugar. Order a glass of water or an unsweetened iced tea while dining at a buffet to minimize your calorie intake.
Harmonize your flavors. A meal made up of many different flavors may stimulate you appetite, causing you to eat more. Try to harmonize and simplify the flavors on your plate, which may help you feel full and satiated. For instance, instead of cheesy broccoli, salad with ranch dressing, and beef with red wine sauce, choose a salad with a citrus-based dressing and fish with lemon or a similar citrus marinade.
Your food does not need to fit the same flavor profile from meal to meal — variety between lunch and dinner is great. Just try to keep the flavors within each meal simple and harmonious.
Pass on the waffle or pancake station at a breakfast buffet. Waffle and pancake stations are often found at hotel breakfast buffets. Although they are tasty, these sugary breakfast items can contain a lot of sugar and carbs with minimal nutritional value. Topping them off with 1 tablespoon or 15 milliliters (1 fl oz) of maple syrup can add an additional 52 calories.
Opt for an egg-white omelet or a bowl of oatmeal to load up on protein and fiber that will fuel you throughout the day.
If you do wish to indulge but don’t want to consume all those calories and sugar, opt for a multi- or whole grain waffle or pancake and use a minimum amount of syrup.