Health & Wellness
13 Foods Nutritionists Eat When They’re at Buffets
A free-for-all of your guiltiest food pleasures can put your willpower to the test, but loading up on these healthy options can help you end an all-you-can-eat meal without the regret.
“I always start with water, no matter where I’m at,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Jenna Braddock, MSH, RD, CSSD, LDN. Not only does it save calories for the things you’re craving most (hello, Chinese food!), but staying hydrated could also take an edge off your hunger, meaning you won’t be tempted to make so many trips back up to the food station. Just make sure you know about these things you shouldn’t touch at all-you-can-eat buffets.
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Made-to-order omelets are one of the best things you’ll find at a breakfast buffet because you have total control over the ratio of ham and cheese (keep it light) to vegetables (load up). “You basically walk away with a plateful of vegetables and protein,” says Libby Mills, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Those omelets can be pretty big—and you don’t want to fill up after just one plate, do you?—so Braddock suggests asking for just one or two eggs instead of three.
Dark, leafy greens
It’s no surprise that a less-guilt buffet trip should involve a stop at the salad bar, but even there, some options are better than others. For instance, you might want to skip the iceberg lettuce and reach for darker greens. “The spring mix or spinach is going to be the most nutrient-dense,” says Braddock. Don’t hit the buffet without reading these things you need to know about Golden Corral.
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Veggies, veggies and more veggies
Raw vegetables at the salad bar are “fair game,” says Mills, but even among the main dishes, be sure to load up with produce. Dishes like Buddha’s delight, garlic broccoli, and green beans will help balance out any fried foods and noodles you indulge in. At an Italian buffet, go for the sliced tomatoes before you hit the pasta.
Fun salad toppings
A plate of tomatoes and cucumbers might not be the most inspiring salad choices (no matter how healthy they are), but you don’t need to pile on the bacon bits and pasta salad to make it tasty. In addition to plenty of raw veggies, Braddock recommends adding low-calorie, high-flavor items you might not get at home, like pickled vegetables or banana peppers. A sprinkle of sunflower seeds and cranberries can also transform those leaves, she says, but Mills adds a warning about portion size. “It’s very easy to put a quarter cup of sunflower seeds in, but that’s really throwing the nutrient balance off,” she says. “It’s too much fat and, in terms of the overall buffet experience, too many calories.”
Both Braddock and Mills agree that if you’re going to have something fried, make it fish. “Seafood is naturally pretty light in calories, it’s a great source of protein, and it’s usually really delicious,” says Braddock. Of course, you don’t have to seek out the breaded options; some steamed shrimp or baked tilapia will be even lower in calories.
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A piece of homemade bread
Braddock says she won’t get bread every time she’s at a buffet, but depending on the selection, it could be a fun treat. A homemade muffin or specialty bread is something you might not get every day (and certainly not without premium bakery prices) but stick to one piece so you aren’t filling up on them, says Braddock. Only seeing plain dinner rolls or white toast? “If it’s nothing particularly great, pass on it,” she says. All-you-can-eat or not, these are 15 things you should never eat at a restaurant.
At a Mexican or Latin food buffet, Braddock likes loading tacos, nachos, or fajitas up with sautéed peppers and onions, plus plenty of salsa. “Salsa is a vegetable and pretty low in calories,” she says. “It’s a good way to add flavor.” Take that, sour cream.
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Taking a lap around the buffet is always a good idea so you know what to save room for on your plate (and in your belly), and Mills says that’s particularly important when it comes to your protein. “One thing I’ve noticed is the types of protein that are the most straightforward and the tastiest and most expensive are always at the end of the line,” she says. Making sure you leave room for roast beef or carved turkey—which, unlike most other meats, aren’t fried—will keep you from filling up on the less healthy choices.
Less saucy items
Often (with the exception of oily items), a clearer, more broth-like sauce will be healthier than a thick sauce, says Mills. But no matter what the sauce, a serving trick can keep those calories in check: “Take from the top or allow the sauce to drip off the vegetables, so what you put on your plate is minimally sauced,” she says.
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Foods you rarely get to eat
You’ve already paid for it—do you really have to skip your favorite cornbread dressing that you know isn’t good for you? Nope! Braddock points out that seeking out those unique items that you don’t get to eat too often is part of the fun of buffets, and you can indulge your taste buds without overboard. “Start with a small portion. You can always go back for more,” she says. “You have the excitement and a variety of flavors, and you’ll be able to identify what you do really like.” If that baked ziti turns out to be pretty blah, then at least you’ll only have wasted a couple of bites.
When you want something sweet at the end of your meal, consider making a dessert of berries and melon. “It refreshes the palate but can also satisfy that sweet taste,” says Mills. If the only options are canned fruits, she recommends letting some of the liquid fall back in, especially if it’s in heavy syrup instead of water.
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A bite of dessert
OK, dessert won’t do your waistline any favors, but no one expects you to resist it all the time, especially when you’re in front of a case full of baked goods. The trick is to not get it just because it’s there but to ask yourself how appealing it really looks. “I have been to buffets where none of the desserts are really that special,” says Braddock. In that case, you might want to stick with your bowl of fruit or split a dessert with the rest of your table to satisfy your sweet tooth without all the calories. A fruit crisp is generally a healthier choice than some of the more indulgent cakes, adds Mills.