Beat the Buffet: A 5-Step Plan

By Jessica Scott |

When the meal is all-you-can-eat, you generally lose. Here’s how to indulge without overdoing it.

SilverSneakers Buffet

If dining out were a Tom Clancy novel, the buffet would be the Russian operative. It seems friendly and inviting, but make no mistake: It’s trying to blow you up, mostly around the waistline.

“There’s something about seeing all that food,” says Elise Museles, an eating psychology expert and author of Whole Food Energy. “It’s inviting, and you don’t want to miss out.”

Whether you’re at a party or on a cruise, buffets are almost always stocked with high-fat, high-sodium, high-calorie junk food. Outsmarting them is challenging even for the most health-conscious among us.

But once you accept that the odds are stacked against you, you can use these strategies to tip them back in your favor. Here’s how to get what you need from any buffet—no more, no less.

Step 1: Don’t Show Up Starving

The first mistake many people make is skipping a previous meal to save calories for a buffet, Museles says. Arriving at a buffet with low blood sugar and low energy is a recipe for disaster.

“Your body is smart—it wants to feel good,” she says. “So you’re going to be drawn to the foods that give it that quick surge, and that’s generally carb-rich and sugary foods.” Stay on track with your usual meals, or have a small snack first.

Step 2: Survey the Scene Before Diving In

“It’s really easy to say ‘Oh, I’ll just have a small portion of this,’ but a small portion of this and a small portion of that when you’re going all the way around the table ends up being a heaping plate of food,” Museles says. “Stand back and assess what you really want and what would be satisfying to you.”

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Step 3: Start with the Good Stuff

Look for healthy, whole foods, and build a foundation (literally!) with fiber- and vitamin-rich vegetables.

“Make a bed with greens and vegetables, and put other food on top,” suggests Museles. “You’ll feel like you’re getting the volume without getting all the calories, sugar, and hidden salt.” Plus, you’ll end up with some delicious combos: vegetables + rice and greens + chicken, salmon, or steak.

Step 4: Find the Rainbow

“Colorful fruits and vegetables are the best,” Museles says. “They will not only feel satisfying to your body, but seeing a rainbow of color on your plate is also satiating.” In other words, your meal should be a treat for your taste buds and eyes. Think:

  • Red tomatoes, peppers, or apples
  • Orange carrots or citrus fruit
  • Yellow squash or bananas
  • Green beans, broccoli, or lettuces
  • Blue or purple berries, grapes, and eggplant

Step 5: Embrace the Experience

Sit down to eat, and focus on your food. “Notice the textures and the flavors,” Museles says. “Put your fork down in between bites. Slowing down may help you eat less. Stop halfway through the meal, and ask yourself if you’re still hungry. Just because it’s free or all-you-can-eat doesn’t mean you have to keep eating.”

And don’t forget the other elements that make dining special. Maybe you’re seeing friends or family for the first time in a while or you’re on the cruise of a lifetime. Enjoy the food, but take advantage of the opportunity to engage with other people or take in the scenery.

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