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Nutritionists Explain How to Navigate Buffets for a Healthy Meal (That’s Still Fun)

By Aly Walansky
August 9, 2022

Buffets are an overwhelming bounty of dining options — that’s kind of the whole point. So it’s easy to go overboard when you’re eating at a buffet, and trying to put together a healthy meal at a buffet can sometimes feel overwhelming. But it really is possible: you just need to assess your options, get creative, and try to maintain moderation and balance.

Read next: Dietitians’ Top Tips for Eating Healthily While Traveling

So if you’re wondering how to eat healthy at a buffet, the best approach is to check out all the available options before you begin filling your plate. Take a full lap around so you can make your choices before you start putting food on your plate. Honestly, this is half the fun of a buffet, in our opinion — you get to scope out all the options, see what looks good, and determine your favorites before you commit to anything. 

“Most cruise buffets offer dishes from multiple international cuisines at each meal. The best way to create a healthy meal is to include lots of produce, lean protein, and fiber-rich carbohydrates,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook

Don’t be shy about calling ahead

If you have any medical conditions, food allergies, or specific preferences that require special dietary provisions, you can arrange this with the cruise line prior to your trip. “On Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, for instance, you can arrange for personalized meals and specialty foods if needed, ranging from a daily vegan menu to gluten-free, dairy-free, and diabetes-friendly options, and more. Even if you don’t reach out in advance, there are signs all over the buffet noting what’s gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, vegetarian, and sugar-free,” says Harris-Pincus. 

Maintain a balanced plate 

The main thing to keep in mind when building a plate at a buffet is to go for balance. That means your dish will be made up of vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and some healthy fats. Harris-Pincus’s advice is to always choose your vegetables first and fill up half your plate with those before you move on. Then choose a lean protein source, like grilled fish, roast chicken, roast beef, or a chickpea stew. It’s a good idea to round out your meal with a whole grain, like a wild rice salad or quinoa. “This balanced meal will help to keep you satisfied and energized thanks to the protein, fiber, and fat content,” says Harris-Pincus.

While you’re probably going to choose one item that’s less-than-healthy, that’s ok — just try to keep the balance going, advises Kelsey Butler, RD. “Fruits and vegetables are important for staying healthy, but also add a burst of color. Not only will this make your plate more aesthetically pleasing, but it will also give you a boost of vitamins and minerals,” says Butler. “You might choose a less-healthy but tasty option, like mac and cheese or barbecue ribs, but starting off with that plate balance will help you make healthier choices overall.”

Eat mindfully — and know when you’re full

If you’re trying to avoid an unhealthy approach, experience the cuisine mindfully. If there’s something that you know is less-healthy that you’d like to try, incorporate a small portion onto your plate, then take your time to really taste and enjoy it. “Mindful eating can help prevent overeating, since you’re more likely to pay attention to your hunger cues and know when you’re actually full,” Butler says.

It’s so easy at a buffet to want to try everything, so you end up eating way more than you need to be satisfied — or even comfortable. No one wants that gross, overstuffed, bloated feeling after eating dinner. “I would suggest assessing your hunger levels on a scale of 1-10 about halfway through your meal,” says Nicole Swingle, RD. Are you still hungry, satisfied, or getting full? “Ideally, when you finish a meal, you want to be around 7-8, where you are satisfied and filled, but not overly full or stuffed like you might think of on Thanksgiving Day,” says Swingle.

Lisa Richards, CNC, creator of the Candida Diet, agrees, noting that it’s important to honor your fullness rather than pushing past it just to finish your entire plate of food. 

Stay hydrated and share dessert

This goes for everyone, but it’s especially true if you’re enjoying a glass or two of wine or a cocktail: make sure you’re drinking water. Staying hydrated is important for every system in your body, and also helps you know when you’re full. Mild dehydration mimics a lot of the same feelings as hunger, so make sure you get a glass of water in before you hit the buffet. 

Even if you’re stuffed from the buffet, chances are, you’ll have some room for dessert — and there are always a ton of dessert options available at a buffet, too. Enjoy yourself, Swingle suggests, but consider splitting the dessert with your dining companions rather than going for it alone.

Read next: 9 Great Chicken Recipes That Can Be on the Table in 30 Minutes Flat

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