The mention of the word “buffet” elicits strong feelings of negativity and guilt for many people. So many intelligent and well-mannered folks enter buffets with the best intentions and leave feeling disgusted; upset with themselves and their lack of will power, vowing never to return. Despite the fact that the economics of buffets don’t really make sense, our greedy societal demand keeps them in business, and always keeps us going back for more.
Let’s face it: you know you could be doing it better. And I’m not just talking about sticking to the salad bar (because that has never worked for anyone and totally defeats the purpose). Whether you’re at a more-plum-sauce-than-spring-rolls restaurant in Florida or at a glamourous hotel in Dubai, there is a way to maximize your enjoyment of the process. In its best form, a buffet should be a celebration of the bounty of food. You should leave full and satisfied, having enjoyed some of your favourite foods and having delighted in few new ones.
Here’s my advice for how to do it:
1. Drinks First: It is a scientific fact that drinking liquids (preferably water) before you meal will aid in digestion. Treat this as a bit of a ritual, if you will. Let your heart rate naturally drop to a comfortable level after standing in that long line or dealing with that argument in the car. If you force yourself to observe the buffet before running to it, you will notice that there is actually some logic and design to the way that the food is laid out that will help guide you in the dining process. As a bonus, this is also a good chance to get to know your server (if you have one) and see if there is anything exciting they might recommend, especially if there are drinks included that most people may not know about because they can’t be bothered to ask.
2. Salad Course: No one goes to a buffet to only eat salads, but you should definitely make it a necessary part of the meal. Leafy greens help balance out and prime you for the next couple of plates. You know you’re never going to eat a salad after you eat ribs or noodles, so might as well do it first. The soup and bread is probably around here too, but you’re best to avoid these pointless fillers.
3. Seafood Station: For many people, the seafood is the most delicate and exciting part of the buffet. It’s also lighter and usually served cold, so it helps to eat these items after your salad. Be cognizant and respectful of the size of your items. I tend to go for the two most interesting (or expensive) things available, whether they be King Crab, lobster, shrimp or ceviche, and put nothing else on my plate other than a light sauce that might accompany it. Another reason to keep your plate sparse is because you’ll probably want to wash your hands after this course before handling utensils again.
4. Sushi (only if high quality): Not all buffets will have it, but if you find yourself at an elegant establishment, make sure you arrange yourself a tasteful sushi platter. Questions to ask yourself: is the sushi on ice and/or approximately chilled? Are the rolls crafted in a way that they don’t look like they’re going to fall apart? And can you actually see the sushi chef slicing the fish? If the answer to all of these questions is “yes”, you’re good. Otherwise, just stay clear unless you want to risk getting sick or wasting your calories.
5. Protein Station: This is time to move to the hot stations and get your roast beef or chicken, or even some that delicious-looking cut of lamb you’ve never tried before. Do it now, alongside a few sides such as scalloped potatoes, asparagus or broccoli. Remember, just because you usually have roast beef with mashed potatoes at home doesn’t mean you need to do it here. Live a little.
6. Pasta Station: You can choose to go to the pasta or noodle station before the proteins, but I find it’s really easy to overeat these carbs. Anytime there is someone composing pasta dishes to order, it’s always worth waiting in line to customize your own than slopping the last of the crusty baked penne onto your plate. If you’re not very hungry at this point, you can always ask for a smaller portion than the default. Same goes for the omelette station if you ever see one.
7. Junk Food Indulgences (only if no will power): Once you know you’ve done the rounds and eaten a bit of everything you really wanted, take the time to think, do I really want that pile of soggy fries and onion rings or nah? If the answer is the latter, you’ve done good. However, you should not feel guilty about just trying that one slice of freshly made pizza or chicken wings if you have the craving for your final wildcard plate.
8. Dessert: Before choosing dessert, I usually order a coffee or tea and let myself digest a little. For me, it’s more about appreciating the selection than actually indulging in all the options, and more often than not, I end up just finishing the meal with two scoops of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, my biggest weakness of all time. Do what you like, as long as you avoid the chocolate fountain (if you only saw how much oil goes in there).
The next time you go to a buffet, give my advice a try and let me know if you leave feeling just a little less pain and a little more happiness.
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How to Eat Better is a series dedicated to the art of making the most out of your dining experiences, no matter how big or small. “Better” can mean healthier, larger quantity, cheaper, more extravagant, or more ethically sourced in different contexts. But for our purposes, “better” simply means maximizing enjoyment. You’ll see what I mean!