8 Nifty Tips for Getting the Most from an All-You-Can Eat Buffet

by Linsey Knerl on 12 October 2008 31 comments
Photo: Jim G

Food can serve many purposes.  For some it is merely for nourishment.  For others it is a form of art or a means of entertainment.  For still others, it fills an emotional need and could even be considered an addiction or vice.   For the purpose of this article, I’d like to point out that my advice is for the most basic of needs:  good nutrition, a bit of indulgence, and a chance to fellowship with your family or friends with no dishes to clean up!  Here are the 8 ways we make our dining dollars a great investment:

1.    Kids eat free (or almost free).  Yep, with four of them, it’s important that we at least get a generous discount, if not a total write-off on the little darlings.  In my area, Tuesday is usually the “Kids Eat Free Day” and requires that at least one adult purchase is made for every one (or even two) free kids’ meals.  Be sure that if you are dining at a chain restaurant, you call ahead to see if they honor national promotions.  We once went to a Golden Corral based on a commercial we saw, only to find they no longer participated in the Kid’s Eat Free promotion.  We started to walk, but the manager begged us back in – and comped the kids’ meals to boot.

2.    Lunch is served.  If at all possible, eat the lunch buffet.  There is usually at least a $2-3 difference in the pricing of lunch and dinner, and usually the offerings are similar.  In rare instance, an evening buffet may offer something special, like nicer steak, crab legs, or a themed dinner.  Weigh your options to decide if this is worth it.  I won’t justify the extra for a cheap steak, but a couple of jumbo crab legs might seal the deal.

3.    Skip the beverage (or plan accordingly.)  Drinks can make an otherwise affordable buffet downright expensive.  If drinks are included, go for it.  If not, you may want to stick to water with lemon, or decide on only one drink.  (Some places will let you get a soft drink with your meal and a coffee afterward, but may charge you for two drinks.)

4.    Fill up on fresh.  I know that those hot wings are tasty, (and I’m also digging the homemade mac and cheese), but the best way to get your money’s worth on a buffet is to eat as fresh as possible.  Melons, berries, broccoli, and avocados are yummy ways to eat healthy and increase the value of your buffet.  Encourage kids to eat one full plate of fresh stuff before they even head toward the French fries and fried shrimp. (They will get loads of nutrients, and you can feel good knowing the extra cost gave them more than any Happy Meal could really provide.)

5.    Take your time.  Buffets are not a dine-and-dash type of atmosphere.  If you are squeezing in your meal between two other pressing matters, pick another day to buffet.  We like to take a weekday with nothing else to do, go early, and stay late.  We snack, talk, and enjoy each other while sampling all kinds of new foods.  If we do it right, we can have a lunch/dinner combo that knocks out two meals in one.  (Leaving by 4:30, so as not to get charged for dinner, too!)  We think of it as the same concept as a brunch, but with the two later meals combined.  (And if kids get hungry at home later, we snack on yogurt and granola, or another kind of light breakfast food before retiring for the evening.)

6.    Know what’s safe.  Even the most talked-about buffets can be a health risk.  Be aware of your surroundings, and watch for common food safety issues that may make you sick later.  Look for foods that are fairly popular, get switched out often, and appear fresh.  If anything doesn’t look right, please don’t eat it!  (And let a manager know of your findings.)  Raw fishes should be approached with caution, and any salad made with mayonnaise should be eyed carefully. (It’s a bad idea to go for that tuna salad with the orangish-looking crust on top.)

7.    Explore your options.  There are many types of buffets that appeal to our family.  We like Chinese, American, and Italian the best.  (In areas that offer more diverse options, I’m sure there are many more kinds to choose from.)  Encourage your family to try new things while at the buffet (after all, if they don’t like their first choice, they can just try another dish – and you won’t be out any more.)

8.    Be courteous.  While buffets are great for saving money, they also seem to attract dining dunces that have little to no common sense or courtesy.  While most all of you will know these, I feel they are at least worth saying:

  • Just because it is a buffet, doesn’t mean you don’t have to tip (even if they only pick up your plates, they deserve the minimum for your region.) 
  • Don’t take more than you can eat at one time (wasting food is a no-no, no matter where you are at.) 
  • Don’t let little kids get their own food (most places have a 10 years or older policy for the buffet line.)
  • Clean up after yourself.  It’s a restaurant, not an abandoned lot.  Pick your trash up off the floor, and try to make the server’s job at least tolerable.  They work hard, too.

We look forward to our monthly outings to a buffet-style restaurant.  When a family of 6 can eat well for under $20 -- that’s a great deal!  And with a wide variety of dining options, buffets can fit any style or budget. 

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Guest's picture

Thanks for these tips.

Guest's picture
Terry

The buffets in my area charge for a drink but that drink charge includes refills as well as different drinks (e.g. soft drink and coffee).

The idea of combining lunch and dinner is a good one; I always aim for a 1:30ish to 3:30ish meal which combines lunch and dinner for the price of lunch.

Guest's picture

Besides families, buffets are great for college students. There is nothing better than being able to eat your fill of good quality food for a decent price. Thanks for the great post.

Guest's picture
Miranda

Great article, I'll have to try these tips! Am bookmarking now.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Wow!  I almost forgot.  We didn't have a buffet near my college, but we would make the 30 mile drive once in a blue moon to the KFC buffet (back when they had one.)  I couldn't get enough of the mash and gravy right before finals!

Linsey Knerl

Wise Bread

Guest's picture
Wayward

I love the buffet. When we choose to do the buffet we usually plan on a late-lunch/early-dinner type meal and usually won't need to have a full sit down dinner later, so it saves us money there too. We have a Asian buffet near us that serves sushi, and good sushi at that. So we're able to get lots of fresh (like you said), lean protien and omegas. (They usualy have snow crab on the buffet line too, but they keep it on ice and I don't like cold crab.)

Obviously this is going to be a spendy buffet, but if you hit the lunch hours it's considerably more affordable. And don't forget the clubs. Sign up for the restaurant newsletters for coupons or deals. We regularly get a $5.00 off coupon to the Asian buffet and a buy one/get one coupon for the local salad bar style all-you-can-eat.

Guest's picture
Erma Kelso

Thanks for the great tips.
I have no kids to get free meals for them but sure like the idea of eating later in the day.
Never thought of that myself.
thanks again.
Erma

Carrie Kirby's picture

there used to be a zine with the above title. we read it in a collection called the Book of Zines. Its 10-step program for "busting buffets" includes tips like:

 1) another reason to drink water, besides it being free, is that it won't fill you up.

2) don't mix alcohol and buffets!

 

I blog at www.shopliftingwithpermission.com.

Guest's picture
Kate

We have four kids, too, and find that buffets can be an affordable way to eat while we're traveling. Thanks for the article!

Guest's picture
LA

Americans' impulse to tip is sometimes really dumb and completely baffling to me. A buffet is not a normal restaurant. Why in the world are you demanding that people tip there? I don't tip fast food employees and they do about as much work for me as the people who pick up my food at a buffet.
If a buffet server is keeping my drink full, I might throw them a dollar or two. But ultimately I'm the server, the one bringing me my food, and I deserve the bulk of the tip. It stays in my wallet.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I can see your point. 

However, in most buffet restaurants (in my area, anyway) they only get server wages (i.e. $3-5 bucks an hour, tops.)  They also bring your rolls, napkins, refill coffee, clean up way more mess (a millions dishes, it seems) and check in on you in the same way a restaurant server would, so why not?  And if you're really saving big on the buffet (spending $20-30 to feed a family of 6), what's $2-3 dollars to tip the bare minimum of 10%?

When I save money, avoid having to do dishes, and leave with a full tummy, I can't justify not tipping.  (Then again, I was a server/bartender for many, many years.  I know what a hard job it is.)

Thanks everyone for the comments!

Linsey Knerl

Wise Bread

Guest's picture
Guest

At the Old Country Buffets where I live the 'waiters' come by and ask what you want to drink and take plates. Taking plates is helpful, but the drinks thing drives me nuts.

Why does it drive me nuts? Because I want to peruse the drink machines (which are included in the price of the buffet) and get my own drink. With all the servers trying to get drinks for people they sit and tie up the machines for 6-8 cups at a time and don't get out of the way for a customer who is standing there with a plate and tray waiting to fill his cup.

Regardless of if doing drinks is a good service or not, they certainly don't deserve a full tip for doing so much less than waiters at other restaurants.

Linsey Knerl's picture

 Another interesting viewpoint on the tipping thing. 

 We have also gone to Old Country Buffet, and I would LOVE it if my server brought us our drinks.  They don't do that here, but I would tip extra for the privelege.  When I'm out and about with the 4 kids (and my husband isn't with us), it can be a delicate balancing act getting all the kids their plates, making sure they don't get left alone at the tables, hitting the restrooms, and keeping them from trashing our table area.  I have always had the best service at most buffets, which include things outside of their jurisdiction (i.e. getting extra napkins, wiping emergency spills, helping me with extra plates of food, etc.)  I appreciate when they make my day that much more pleasant, and a tip is definitely in order in these instances.

But if you were a capable single diner, I could see how this may not be the case.

Linsey

Guest's picture
Guest

We have a Golden Corral and two Chinese buffet's in our town. The Golden Corral is the worst one I have ever eaten at. The two Chinese buffets are better with one being very good, however I don't think they are very inexspensive at all. We have two children, a boy 15 and a girl 11. We get charged the adult price for our 15 year old ($10.75 ) so we don't save ANY money at the buffet, so until I get "the working family discount", like the senior's get, I will only tip $1.00 per person. I the "busser", which is all the wait staff is at a buffet, doesn't like the $4.00/ hr wage, GET REAL JOB.

Guest's picture
Rachel

Wow! People sure are snarky when it comes to tipping. Honestly, if the food and the service bother you so much, do everyone else a favor and stay home and cook your own food. Seriously. You can bet the other customers don't want to be sitting by someone with such a negative attitude when enjoying a meal that they also paid for. People tend to forget that waitstaff tend to be students, parents, and those working a second job. These people work as hard, if not harder, than most of us and deserve a little respect. I will often double my bill if I'm dining alone and I have great service. Especially if my server maintains a positive attitude while also having to deal with a "cranky-pants" customer at the next table.

Guest's picture
Guest

I agree these low paid waiter deserve a decent wage but is should not be at the expense of the customer expected to tip. They should be paid by the owners of the establishment who in turn should charge more for the food to pay their help. It rally chaps me to eat a t a nice resturant and have an 18% gratuity included. It is a recipe for poor service. Tipping shold be a personal choice and only for good service.. Why do so many people do this kind of work. It's because they can make more off our guilt trips to tip them than they can at a regular job. Have them learn a skill and got a higher paying job. Refuse to work for sub minimum wage. We need to change the system. Everyone has their hand out. I am retired and on a fixed income. I don't get more money because I got good service. I will leave a minimum tip if impressed with the service. I will leave nothing or a penny if not satisfied. I avoid food places with a built in gratuity. There are places in the world that do not allow tipping and everything runs smoothly. You pay a little more for food but you don't ever get bad service because the owners pay the full salarys.Singapore is one such place.
Don't cry to me about the poor people need a decent living. Have them get a real job and force the food service owners to make waiting tables a real job instead of customers paying for their help.

Guest's picture
lucille

One of the Chinese buffets in town has a number of seafood items on the buffet. It never fails that some guy, yes it is always a guy will wait until they deliver crab legs and attempt to take the entire steam tray bin with him on one plate.

I saw a guy do this and it reminded me of the tanqueray commerical where the cheezy looking guy is loading his plate with handfuls of shrimp at a swanky cocktail party.

Please don't be "that guy".

We always tip the wait staff. They bring sodas, check the table constantly and remove all the plates so we don't have a mountain of used plates on the table.
There are other places were you might not even see the wait staff the entire time and you already paid. Those I would be less likely to tip.

Guest's picture

Sushi buffets (good sushi) are some of the best dining bargains out there. Even though the price can be higher than American food buffets, I tend to get more value out of it, and I don't have to stuff myself sick to feel like I got my money's worth.

Of course, I'm also the girl who's gotten applause for pretty much eating my weight in cheesecake at one Vegas buffet. So take my opinion with a grain of salt...

Guest's picture

Great article and great sense of humor! Our daughter is 3 and way too picky of an eater so a buffet may be the way to go!

Thanks!

Tina
The Beadin' Beagle
Fashionable Medical Jewelry

Guest's picture
Guest

I don't mind tipping at a buffet, but giving the same 15-20 percent as expected for full service seems a bit extreme. Isn't a dollar or two (roughly 10 percent) plenty for clearing plates and refilling drinks? If a server isn't polite or attentive, why reward bad behavior? Honestly I'd rather keep my cash, refill my own drinks and pile up the plates on a tray if the tabletop is big enough. The bottom line is that a gratuity is a way of saying "thank you" and if there isn't much done or it isn't done well, what is there to be thankful for? Waiters have a tough job for sure, but we all have to make do with whatever money we get. Why can't successful eateries pay their staff a better hourly wage?

Guest's picture
Guest

Me and my work mates patronize a couple of mostly Asian buffets here in Silicon Valley. One of my pet annoyances is the folks who cherry pick the beef/shrimp/chicken/whatever out of the stir fry or casserole, leaving the vegies.

If you're not there when the dish is put out, you are scratching your head wondering what that pan full of onions and green peppers was supposed to be...

Fun article!
-Daniel

Andrea Karim's picture

Oh, lordy - Indian buffets are my weakness. There's one in North Seattle that makes butter chicken that MUST contain crack. My trick is to go light on the carbs. Rice and bread just fill you up.

I always tip if the servers are courteous about the service. They're not really doing any less than they would at a normal restaurant. They've got to bring out the buckets of food, clean up the dining area. etc. Plus, removing plates - I mean, people go back for fourth rounds of food at buffets. And the servers have to clear all those plate. No. I'm a-tippin' fo sho.

Guest's picture
kelsr59

Starches (i.e., potatoes, breads) and sodas will fill you up fast. Also, you're getting a good deal on your meal and the serdoes do this for you. So, a few bucks qon't hurt you. My grand dad used to say, "If you can't afford to tip, you can't afford to eat out".

Guest's picture
ruth

If you are really trying to save those $$$$....take-out buffet is the way to go. fill your container with food you really enjoy, cook your own rice at home and have enough food to last a couple of meals. You can fill the take out container with more food than you could eat sitting inside the buffet. Also, those of you who resist tipping....that is the way to avoid it!

Guest's picture
Erin

Sorry, I find most of these places are just an invitation to overeat mediocre, extremely unhealthy food just because it's "all you can eat!" I tend to order off the menu at Chinese restaurants that have a buffet because the buffet food tends to be not that fresh but I eat too much of it anyway. I would rather save up my money to eat somewhere with better food than blow it on a buffet.

Guest's picture
A

"Sorry, I find most of these places are just an invitation to overeat mediocre, extremely unhealthy food just because it's "all you can eat!" "

For the most part, I agree with you. My SO is "not allowed" (his words) to go to Chinese buffets anymore because he overeats and feels sick afterwards.

That said, there's an Indian restaurant near me that serves proper sit-down dinners and a lunch buffet. I mean, there's still a chance of overeating, but it is good food, and somewhat healthier than the Americanized Chinese food you get at most buffets (oh, and much friendlier to vegetarians!). Also the only time I ever go is with my coworkers, and we walk the two and a half miles there and back, so it works out ;)

Guest's picture

All you can eat buffets may represent a good value for families when kids can eat for free. They may also work well with the carry out buffet idea, allowing the diner to spread the food over several meals. But really, for the average single diner, this concept typifies the American problem with overconsumption of cheap, nutritionally poor calories. Lindsey has given good tips on how to fill up on the healthier offerings first. But most people won't do this. And even if you eat fruit or vegetables first, the urge to overeat on other stuff - because you can - is enormous. Sometimes what makes sense financially doesn't add up when it comes to our health.

Guest's picture
Guest

Our kids love to eat at buffet type restaurants. My favorite part is that the food is ready. With 4 young and impatient kids, it is difficult to get everyone to look at menus, make a choice and wait for the food to come.
My kids are also more willing to try new things at a buffet because they can take a small amount and see if they like it.

Guest's picture

I tend to shun away from drinks when doing buffet. That way, I am still left with plenty of "space" in my stomach for the food :D

Guest's picture
Nicole

My husband and I love buffets, but we have yet to find one where there wasn't at least one young child at the buffet line, picking its nose and poking the food, reaching out and grabbing items and putting them back, or coughing and sneezing directly onto the food.

If your child is still small enough to be able to fit under the sneeze guard, he should not be at the buffet line. Even parents who take their child up to serve them cannot seem to physically restrain the child from contaminating food.

Guest's picture
Kristen

I agree with nicole. i personally love buffets, but young children should be left at the table or at least carried so they are above the sneeze guard and cannot reach the food.