How to Eat Healthy at a Buffet

This past weekend my husband and I got out of town for a little Valentine’s getaway to Las Vegas. I’ve lived in the desert Southwest nearly my entire life (since 1985!) and visited 31 states, but had never made the short 4-hour drive to cross into Nevada, let alone seen the bright lights of Las Vegas. But I’ve always just been SO curious! What is it about this place that makes it such an iconic destination? Does the reality live up to the hype?

I’m not a gambler (unless you count the round of bingo I played on my honeymoon in Aruba, but I chalk that up to the included $6 hot dog lunch that appealed to my broke 21-year-old self) and I’m definitely not one for glitz and glam. But you just can’t live as close as I do to Sin City and never, ever check it out. So, for this one of our bi-annual kid-free getaways, I convinced my husband: Vegas, baby, Vegas!

During our whirlwind trip of about 48 hours, we saw and did a TON. We took in the majesty of the Bellagio fountains.

We wandered through the endless shops and corridors of the Flamingo, the Venetian, New York, New York, Treasure Island, and the Mirage.

 

We attended an amazing magic show by Penn and Teller (and got pictures with them!).

And I posed with a naked mermaid figurehead. Because Las Vegas.

But mostly, we did what anyone who’s not into hookers and gambling does when they go to Vegas: we ATE. I’d heard tales of the mythic proportions of casino buffets, so this experience topped my list of dining options. Based on online reviews, we settled on the buffet at the Bellagio for dinner on Saturday night.

It was, in fact, the largest feast I have ever laid eyes upon. And while the food wasn’t all as fabulously gourmet as legends tell, the sheer AMOUNT of it honestly outdid my expectations. King crab legs by the pile, sushi on demand, rows upon rows of mini desserts, and bottomless alcohol (for an extra premium, of course).

As much as I adore food–especially endless mountains of it–like anyone else, I struggle with eating the right amount when faced with the overwhelming free-for-all of a buffet. But I must say, years of practice honing my awareness and tuning in to my body’s cues have taught me a thing or two about how to navigate a buffet in a healthier way. I actually left the Bellagio that evening feeling comfortably full, not overstuffed.

We could all use a refresher from time to time on how to hit the dietary sweet spot of just-enough-and-not-too-much. Here are some of my nutritionist-approved tips for healthier buffet dining.

7 Steps to Eating Healthier at a Buffet

1. Don’t show up starving. Sure, you want to get your money’s worth out of an expensive meal with so many options. But showing up ravenous is a surefire recipe for overdoing it. It’s certainly wise to eat a little lighter throughout the day when you know a large dinner is coming, but on a totally empty stomach, you’re almost guaranteed to gorge–and then regret it.

2. Survey the scene. Before I dig in, I like to make the rounds of the entire buffet scene. This way I can prioritize my must-eat items and fill my plate accordingly. Try taking a reconnaissance lap before you begin.

3. Take one plate–and make it MyPlate. If you grab two plates and a soup bowl the minute you head into the buffet fray, odds are you’re going to fill them. And for most of us, two heaping plates plus a bowl of minestrone is way more food than we actually need from a single meal. Start with a single plate. You can always see how you feel when you finish it.

While you’re loading up, think of your plate as a canvas on which to paint the MyPlate categories of  fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. It’s a helpful visual that can keep you from maxing out on a single food group.

4. A little of this, a little of that. It may sound obvious, but with a million choices before you, try thinking of a buffet meal as a sampler platter. A little place for everything, and everything in its little place.

5. Savor. When you sit down to your edible masterpiece, be sure to give your food the attention it deserves. Savoring food by focusing on its taste and texture is a proven way to slow down and moderate your intake. Though you may be distracted by the restaurant environment or the conversation at your table, do what you can to engage your senses to really enjoy what you’re eating.

6. Get up to check in. Plate #1 down! Is it time to head back for your next helping? Maybe. But perhaps when you get up from the table, it could be to take stock of your level of fullness, rather than to revisit the pasta bar. Removing yourself from the table for a momentary check-in provides the pause you may need to get a handle on whether you’re really still hungry.

7. When you’ve taken too much… At buffets, it’s inevitable: We bite off more than we can chew (literally). So what should you do when you’re getting full but there’s still a whole scoop of tortellini or half a cheesecake on your plate? It’s not like you can say, “Sorry, I took too much!” and pour your excess chicken noodle back into the soup bin.

As much as I hate food waste (and I really, really hate food waste) I sometimes have to ask myself: “Would I rather waste this food by throwing it in the trash or waste it by putting into my body?” For me, the answer is clear. If food has to go to waste, it’s not going in the trash compactor of my belly. Let the sad misuse of food left on the plate be a lesson for taking less next time.

With these strategies, I believe healthy buffet dining is actually possible. With any luck, there will be more buffets in your future! So enjoy the one before you in the moment, knowing you can eat just the right amount.

Lemon Raspberry Smoothie

When I think of smoothies, I don’t often consider lemon as a particularly tempting flavor. Lemon in cocktails, muffins, or chicken recipes? Yes, all the way. But lemon in a smoothie? Sounds a little odd. I would think the tangy taste would be a bit too overpowering for a snack as tame as a smoothie–or that putting lemon juice in with dairy would produce something curdled.

Then again, lemon yogurt was always my favorite growing up, and I think we can all agree that lemon sweets are some of the best around. (P.S. I just counted, and just on this blog I have 13 recipes with lemon as their primary flavor.)

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the flavor of lemon–especially when paired with raspberry–in this easy smoothie turned out refreshing and delicious. The sunshiney tartness mixed with that pretty rosy color just stole my heart. And my mouth.

Plus, a lemon raspberry smoothie gave me an excuse to use the candied lemon slices I bought from Trader Joe’s, which I didn’t actually need, but were so cute and appealing I couldn’t resist. (Like so many other things at Trader Joe’s.) Now that the package is open, I guess I’ll have to go and make those other 13 lemon recipes and garnish the heck out of ’em.

Looking for more lemony goodness this winter season? Try some of my other recipes!

Lemon Honey Olive Oil Muffins

Lemon Poppyseed Pancakes

Lighter Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake Bars

Sparkling Ginger Lemonade


Print Recipe
Lemon Raspberry Smoothie
This lemon raspberry smoothie with the prettiest pink color makes a refreshing, tangy snack.
Instructions
  1. Place raspberries, yogurt, honey, and among milk in a blender. Zest lemon directly into the blender, then juice the 1/2 lemon directly in as well, straining for seeds. Blend well and top with whipped cream, if desired.
Recipe Notes

A Love Letter to Food original recipe.

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Blueberry Flax Seed Muffins

Oh, breakfast, I love you. How can anyone not eat breakfast everyday? I know there are those who say they feel nauseous in the mornings, or they’re just not hungry first thing, but breakfast is MY JAM. When my kids were really little, eating an entire breakfast for myself with no interruptions was something I’d fantasize about. Sitting there with my coffee steaming, a buttery muffin or crunchy bowl of cereal in front of me (and only me) sounded like pure bliss–the perfect start to the day.

Now, when I have a great breakfast to look forward to, it literally extends its joy to the night before. Last night, knowing I had these Blueberry Flax Seed Muffins to wake up to was enough to curb my late-night sweets cravings and make me wait until morning to eat. That’s right, I said NO to the COSTCO CHEESECAKE in my fridge for these things.

See, I’ve been kind of obsessed with flax seed lately. (And planning a post all about it and how to use it–so for now I’ll restrain myself for the moment from launching into accolades about its many benefits.) Suffice it to say, a switch has flipped in my brain and I am in full-on Flax Seed Mode. Energy balls, smoothies, and, of course, muffins make excellent vehicles for this mega-healthy–and, I think, mega-tasty–ingredient.

In light of recent evidence that more dietary fiber reduces the risk of numerous chronic diseases, I’m digging flax seed’s enormous fiber content. A single tablespoon of the stuff contains about 3 grams of fiber. Plus, flax seeds contain plenty of heart-healthy omega-3 fats. So even if they’re not a familiar ingredient for you, why not try something new?

These Blueberry Flax Seed Muffins are springy with flax seed, chewy with oats, and bursting with luscious blueberries. Maybe you can see why the thought of them sustained me when Costco cheesecake was calling.

Oh, and did I mention that each muffin has only 125 calories?

Oh. YEAH.

So whaddaya say? Gonna try flax seeds in your muffins? (And if you put them in your muffins, I have a feeling you’ll want to put them in everything.)

 


Print Recipe
Blueberry Flax Seed Muffins
Ready for something a little different? These blueberry muffins use a combination of ground flax seed and oats to achieve their unique texture--and blueberries for juicy pops of flavor. Delish!
Course breakfast
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings
muffins
Course breakfast
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings
muffins
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray.
  2. In a large bowl, combine all wet ingredients: egg, brown sugar, maple syrup, vanilla, yogurt, oil, and almond milk.
  3. To the same bowl, add dry ingredients: flax seed meal, whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, oats, salt, cinnamon, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir until just combined. Fold in blueberries.
  4. Divide mixture among 12 muffin cups and bake 20-22 minutes or until browned on top. Store in an airtight container.
Recipe Notes

Adapted from Running With Spoons.

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Twice-Baked Spaghetti Squash with Sausage and Kale

Last weekend, while I was out at the toddler cooking class I teach once a month, my husband got together with a group of guys for a Sausage Festival. I’m not being gross. They literally hung out for several hours making sausage. I kinda wish I could have been there, because this is one aspect of food production I have never personally experienced…and, though it’s not terribly glamorous, it’s pretty interesting! So before I dive into this tasty Twice-Baked Spaghetti Squash with Sausage and Kale–which, of course, uses the sausage from the Sausage Festival–here’s a little glimpse into the process.

Apparently it all starts with pork shoulder, cut into chunks.

Then the pork goes through a grinder…


And gets mixed with a blend of spices–in this case, parsley, garlic, fennel, and red pepper flakes.

 

And finally, the part everyone knows and loves: filling the casings with the meat to make links!


Pretty floral apron optional.


As far as I’m concerned, the best part about the Sausage Festival is that we now have homemade sausage to last until Kingdom Come. The guys made both links and bulk sausage, so I was only too happy to use some of the bulk kind up in this hearty, Mediterranean-style Twice-Baked Spaghetti Squash.

It all starts with yourr basic giant yellow squash, baked and scraped to get those signature squiggly strings so reminiscent of pasta. In the meantime, you’ll brown some sausage and wilt some kale in a bit of garlic-infused olive oil on the stovetop. Toss these yummy goodies–plus some sun-dried tomatoes, parmesan, and cannellini beans–with the squash strings. Refill the shells, top with a sprinkle of mozzarella, and bake one more time for the finished product!


As a one-dish meal, this Twice-Baked Spaghetti Squash is full of nutrients from the kale, beans, tomatoes, and squash, makes a ton, and reheats well. I think you’ll enjoy it, even if you don’t have the luxury of homemade sausage.


Print Recipe
Twice-Baked Spaghetti Squash with Sausage and Kale
A hearty, mostly veggie dinner with flavors of the Mediterranean. Leave off the sausage for a vegetarian version!
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 50 minutes
Servings
as a main dish
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 50 minutes
Servings
as a main dish
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prick both spaghetti squash all over with a fork and microwave each one for about a minute, to soften.
  2. Slice squash in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds. Place squash halves cut side down on a greased baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven for about 35-40 minutes.
  3. While squash bakes, prepare the rest of the filling. In a large pan, cook the sausage over medium heat until browned and crumbled. Remove from the pan and place on paper-towel lined plate.
  4. Using the grease left behind by the sausage (or supplementing with olive oil), saute garlic and kale until kale begins to wild and garlic begins to brown. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add cannellini beans, sun-dried tomatoes, and parmesan and cook an additional minute or two. Place mixture in a large mixing bowl, along with cooked sausage.
  5. When squash has finished baking, remove from oven and scrape most of their contents into the mixing bowl, leaving a small border of flesh. (Be careful, squash will be hot!) Mix squash strings, sausage, and kale mixture thoroughly.
  6. Divide the mixture among the four squash halves and sprinkle with mozzarella. Place back on the baking sheet and return to the oven for an additional 10 minutes, or until cheese has melted and filling is warmed through. One serving equals half of a squash boat.
Recipe Notes

A Love Letter to Food Original Recipe.

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Snack Review: Fishpeople Salmon Jerky

If you had told me a few weeks ago that my new go-to snack would be dried Alaskan salmon, I would have thought the idea was…well…pretty fishy. I don’t usually think of seafood as snack food. (I did, however, just learn that whale milk ice cream is gaining popularity. Apparently it’s almost 50% fat and tastes like “a mixture of fish, liver, milk of magnesia, and castor oil,” so…maybe this is a thing now?)

Here’s the deal, though: As a freelance health and nutrition writer, I often get, ahem, interesting emails from PR people for various companies, asking me to try out their products so I can write about them. I’ve been offered all sorts of intriguing and off-the-wall stuff, from athletic wear to “designer” turmeric to plant-based sports drinks. I got a free tote bag and water bottle from Morton’s salt. (Yes, featuring the iconic umbrella-carrying salt girl.) I’ve been offered free online yoga subscriptions and services to cure headaches. And I was recently given a pre-screening of a new movie made by the guy who played Toby on The Office, and asked to interview him. Sometimes it’s a pretty sweet deal!

It’s hard to know when to say yes and when to say I’ll pass on these many products. But sometimes something comes along that sounds genuinely compelling, and this salmon jerky by Fishpeople was one of them.

First, let me just say that I dig the name “Fishpeople” and the company’s rather eccentric, stuff-of-Grimms-fairytales logo (pictured above) of a man/fish creature carrying a fork–or is it a trident? Is he a person? Or a fish? Is he going to eat people? Or fish? The world may never know.

When I tore into my first bag of jerky, I was excited, since I love salmon, but wan’t sure what to expect. I mean, I’ve had plenty of smoked salmon (which I also adore) and lots of beef jerky (I went through a jerky phase in high school, I confess), but what does fish look and taste like when you put it through the drying process?

I had my choice between Original flavor, Ancho Chili + Lime, Rainbow Peppercorn, and Lemon Zest + Herb. I decided to start with Original. Admittedly, the smell upon first opening the bag was a bit overpowering, even for someone who really likes salmon, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I tried the bits of dried fish and was pleased to discover they were extremely tasty! Chewy, certainly, but not nearly as tough as beef jerky, and with a slightly sweetness that complements the fish’s natural flavor.

I’ve now worked my way through the various bags of jerky and enjoyed them all. (Rainbow Peppercorn is by far and away my favorite.) I’ve sprinkled them on salad for an easy protein topping and snacked on them before bedtime. I even think you wouldn’t be remiss adding them to a sandwich, perhaps to make a salmon BLT.

Although–as mentioned–I wouldn’t normally think of eating dried fish for a snack, I’m really coming around to the idea. I mean, who says we have to eat any certain type of food at any meal? My 9-year-old likes to eat meatball sandwiches for breakfast, and sometimes I think he’s better off with that than a bowl of super sugary cereal in the mornings. So maybe salmon as my bedtime snack isn’t such a bad idea (as long as I brush my teeth before snuggling in next to my husband).

I say this especially because so many packaged snacks are high-calorie and packed with garbage. Dried salmon, on the other hand, is extremely low-calorie (each Fishpeople bag contains two 90-calorie servings), full of omega-3 fats (the kind with evidence-based links to brain health), and high protein (not that we need a TON of protein, but 12 grams per serving is a nice boost). Plus, they contain far less sugar than the average granola bar or yogurt I’d usually reach for.

Though the PR person I’d emailed with had emphasized portability as one of salmon jerky’s main selling points, I just don’t think I’m quite hipster enough to, you know, stash a bag of dried salmon to munch on during my flight to Coachella. But for an at-home snack my future self will thank me for? One that’s good for me and is actually really tasty? Yes, I’ll gladly grab some salmon jerky any day.

You can find Fishpeople’s products on their website, or on Amazon.