Sunday, July 10, 2016

How to win at any buffet

Ready to go home a winner?

It couldn't have been any clearer.
As diners settled in to plates packed with deliciousness, the rookie mistake rose above the clatter of silverware and soft conversation.
Sausages instead of THIS?
That, my friend, is
a classic rookie move.
Across the room, a stunned father tried to set his pre-teen son on the proper path, and it took all I had not to give the man a standing ovation: "What are you doing getting so many sausages? There's prime rib!"
See, that guy gets it. When on the battlefield of a buffet, there is but one goal: victory.
Simply put, you want to leave having eaten food worth more than the entry price, while also making your belly salute what went down.
As a veteran of buffets large and small, I'm here to help you strive for greatness. And almost anyone can reach the promised land.


STEP ONE: Get your head right

Believe it or not, buffet victory requires a proper state of mind even more than stomach capacity, which isn't as important as you might think.
Go ahead. Bring your objections.
* "But, but ... I couldn't possibly eat that much at once to win." Nonsense. If you prepare properly and have a solid plan of attack, you too can achieve victory.
* "OK, but how's your plan going to help ME? I only weigh 98 pounds!" Assuming you're a healthy adult of a somewhat average height, you almost certainly could use a buffet, but may want to build up before hitting the big leagues. No shame in grabbing some easier victories first. Might I suggest a Cici's Pizza? Seriously, get some meat on your bones
* "I just eat as much as I can, so I already know how to win." Sure, you'll get win sometimes, but with a strategy like that, it's almost a guarantee you've felt a buffet's immediate revenge upon returning home more than once. Is that really the way you want to win?
* "This all sounds great, but I'm on a liquid diet, so..." All right, all right, all right. Just stop right now and enjoy one of this blog's other fine posts.

STEP TWO: Recon mission

The importance of this step can't be overstated.
Skipping the recon would be like skipping putting on clothes before leaving for work. I mean, you could, but why?
No matter how hungry you are or how big the buffet is, grab a plate and take a minute or two to make a mental note of what's up for grabs. Do NOT take anything until you know everything available. Trust me, I've made the mistakes.
Back in my pre-victory days, I would go to a Chinese food buffet, grab a plate and take a couple of scoops of rice to go with the first round -- because it was the first thing next to the plates. Looking back now, I should have been slapped upside the head.
We're looking for victory here, and the only thing overloading on rice will get you is sadness and hunger a couple of hours after leaving. Know your options. 

STEP THREE: Lettuce plan our attack
With that in mind, my first tip: Skip the salad.
Look, normally I'm all for a quality healthy salad, but if you really cared about eating healthy for this meal, you wouldn't be anywhere near an all-you-can-eat trough.
"But I'm really craving those cute little cucumbers they have!" 
Sigh. Fine. Grab a couple of small things if you must. Just keep the salad fixings to no more than about a third to a quarter of your first plate, even if that dish is small.
The same goes for rice of any kind, simple sweets (i.e. fruit salad) and even relatively easy-to-make or inexpensive things like macaroni and cheese or egg rolls. Nothing wrong with taking a small amount of any of it, but all this is way too filling without getting to the good stuff.
We have victory to achieve and there's no room for fluff.

STEP FOUR: Time for the main event
Look around. Do you see a spectacularly dressed wait staff, a sommelier and an elegant table setting?
You do not. It's a buffet. You might be lucky to snag a second napkin.
So why waste time and stomach space building to the highlight of the meal like it's a five-course meal aboard the Queen Elizabeth?
Having done a recon mission (you HAVE done the fly-by, right?), head for your high-value items of choice. We're talking the food the restaurant hopes you'll like but won't eat to excess: crab legs, good cuts of steak, sashimi (better than sushi -- no rice!), prime rib, any quality seafood (plain beats fried if a choice exists), and even chicken, if it involves bacon and/or a preparation that appears to have taken a lot of care or cost.
This holds even at a lower-end buffet like Golden Corral, where the term "sirloin" often seems more a way to politely speak to a steak than something you'd really crave.

STEP FIVE: Play it again
Keep going for the good stuff, people
Here's where I've seen so many stop themselves from victory. This step is so simple, too.
Just keep going back and getting as much as you want of the same high-value foods you like best. That's it.
After the initial trip or two, now's the time to start adding other favorites if you want them. Here's where the victory strategy has room for your love of fried food, General Tso's chicken, mashed potatoes, or a certain kind of soup. You're not as likely to load up on these things at this point, keeping yourself in line to leave in the win column. 
And yet ... so many people don't do this. Something keeps them from simply going back and getting more of the high-value foods they like best.
Are they afraid of getting a nasty look from a meat carver or people who might see them? Do they not like themselves enough make most of the feast about the foods that cost too much? Unless you're eating so much and taking so long that you're being asked to leave and never come back, you're fine. No one cares what you're eating; they're too busy with their own food.

STEP SIX: The encore
Depending on your buffet of choice, the call for desserts could loom large. Again, this is where recon plays a pivotal role.
A general checklist:
Hopefully your buffet has more than this for a dessert.

What does your given buffet have? If it's mostly sugar-free cookies, jello and a Werther's Original, you've probably crashed a retirement home, in which case, I'd advise courteously and quickly leaving.
Is the dessert selection simply a selection of 3-4 flavors of ice cream? If so, chances are it's a relatively low-value item. Enjoy, but keep it fairly small. If you're not just topping off, you're better off with another small round of going for the buffet's gold.
Are desserts part of the entry price? I've seen them as extras, so be careful.
If they're part of your meal, consider how much you'd likely pay for the desserts you're eyeing, and let that be your guide. There's no shame in taking the smallest portion available here. After all, if you've followed the plan, you've achieved victory and may not have a lot of room left. If so, I salute you.

STEP SEVEN: Walk out with your head held high
Remember, you don't need to be so stuffed you can't move. It's about quality over quantity, though if you have the space, there's nothing wrong with both.
Once you've properly achieved victory, you'll be surprised how little you care about not getting to gorge on lower-value foods, having known the glory of feasting on the best that place has to offer, even if that means it's chunks of bacon-wrapped "steak." Feast on, fellow victors!

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