How all-you-can-eat buffets trick you into eating less food

In presenting the ongoing case that America is turning into latter-day Rome, I present the all-you-can-eat buffet. Shamefully wasteful? Possibly, especially when the leftovers are thrown away. Horrifyingly indulgent? To a European, maybe. But in a country where we shield our children from actual porn, the typical endless buffet is one borderline bacchanalian orgy that we can confidently call family-friendly.

As grocery prices spike, there's no better time to acquaint yourself with the basic principles for squeezing every smidgen of value from your next buffet sitting. One of the prime ways to maximize your buffet buck is go for lunch. It's always a few dollars cheaper than dinner (at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, lunch can be as much as $15 cheaper). Going then may also save you from gaining as much weight as you would from a dinner banquet, because you'll still have many hours left in your day to burn off that calorie infusion. You'll also likely want a smaller dinner after all that afternoon food, saving you even more cash later in the day.

Lots of unlimited buffets, such as at the Golden Corral chain, switch dinner pricing in mid- to late-afternoon, but provided it's open continuously, you pay the price charged at the moment you sit down, not when you leave. Plan things right, and you can enjoy the dinner buffet, which may include an expanded menu, at the lunch price. In Vegas and Orlando, two towns packed with crowded buffets, going well outside of the mealtime rush is a smart time-saving strategy, too, because you won't have to wrestle so many other sharp-elbowed customers for the fried shrimp.

As someone who regularly covers tourism for the American masses (and as someone who once gained the "freshman 15"), I find much to admire in this blogger's quaint list of tips for maximizing buffets. For one, the writer tells you to get as many fresh foods as you can. They're more expensive and better for you, anyway. That's good economic advice. It's also good food safety advice, especially at places like the Ponderosa, where six-year-olds can't resist sticking their fingers in the food. The fresher, the better, and if you see something being replenished, that's the time to pounce.

She also tells us that many roadside buffets have kids-eat-free deals (yes, they do), and to go easy on the drinks because they're expensive. True. At many buffets, a Coke can cost around $2 (not exorbitant, but that chips away at the overall value of the meal). But if we're going to buffets to stretch our dollar -- it's rare to find one that stretches our culinary horizons, that's for sure -- it pays to be aware of the physiological and psychological quirks that keep us from maximizing our money when we belly-up to the food bar.

To that end, the real reason to avoid beverages is that they fill you up. Carbonated drinks, especially, make you feel fuller than you are. Restaurants pay a few cents to fill your Sprite or iced tea while paying for the equivalent serving in food would be expensive. When you fill up, the restaurants saves money. So don't have a glass of water for a hour before the buffet, either.

Ever since I traveled to places like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, places where stuffing yourself is as impossible as it is unnecessary, I have been truly disturbed by the immoderate American habit of gorging ourselves at every sitting. But I have to confess that from a savings standpoint if not a medical one, it makes sense to eat quickly at a buffet. The slower you eat, the faster you feel full, so chowing down, at least in the first course, can actually net you more food for your money.

Also, never ever eat bread at a buffet. It fills up you, too, and you'll miss the better stuff. Restaurants have long used bread, which is relatively cheap, to keep you off the meat, which is relatively expensive. The low cost of bread is one way that the mushrooming Cici's Pizza chain, which does almost nothing but pizzas at its buffet for around $5, is able to keep its costs so low. Do the breads at dessert, once you've had a proper meal (Cici's sets out cinnamon buns for that), but don't start off with them.

This fan blog, run by a buffet aficionado who lives near Pennsylvania, touches on unexpected aspects of the buffet niche, which uses stealth tricks to keep you from going all Homer Simpson on the steam tables and scraping everything dry. For example, a survey recently reported that diners tend not to go get more food if dirty dishes from a earlier course are left on their table. If a restaurant takes its sweet time in refreshing your used plates with new ones, it stands to save a little money on refilling your stomach.

And then there's the design of the plates (shallower plates hold less food) and the design of the seating. If your butt starts to ache, you'll leave earlier, so buffets usually have chairs that are just uncomfortable enough to send you scooting after a short period.

As for this trend of calling all-you-can-eat buffets "all you care to eat." Yeah, it might be grammatically correct, since the word can implies you're testing your body's limit and not just sating your hunger. But having been to more than my share of buffets, I can tell you that for many folks, there's no difference.

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