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.

One thought on “How to Eat Healthy at a Buffet

  1. Good stuff in this post! My favorite tip is #6. Gt up to check in. And my favorite photo is you posing in front of the naked mermaid. 🙂

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