Best Bets at a Buffet or Cafeteria

Whether you’re buying lunch at your office or school cafeteria, or trying to navigate a buffet at a restaurant, planning ahead before you serve yourself will help you make the best food choices. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind the next time you’re eating in a cafeteria or at a buffet:

  • Choose wisely at the salad bar. Making the right choices at a salad bar can be a good way to maintain your healthy eating plan. Help yourself to filling, nonstarchy vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower and go easy on the cheese and salad dressing (olive oil and vinegar is a good choice; just remember that 2 tablespoons is the right amount to use for dressing salads). Instead of iceberg lettuce, choose dark leafy greens, such as arugula, spinach, red leaf or romaine lettuce, and/or mesclun. On Phase 2, enjoy the pre-cut fresh-fruit offerings (except sugary pineapple and watermelon) or add a small amount of dried fruit, if available, to your salad. Instead of topping your salad with bacon bits and croutons, sprinkle on some nuts or seeds, like sliced almonds, chopped walnuts or pecans, or pumpkin seeds, for a healthy crunch. You can also add some grilled chicken or steak, tofu cubes, your choice of beans or other legumes, a hard-boiled egg, or some tuna or salmon for a boost of protein. Tossing in a couple of avocado slices (and using less dressing) will add some flavor and good fats and keep you feeling satisfied.

  • Go for healthy soups. Soups are a healthy and filling cafeteria or buffet option on the South Beach Diet when they are made without cream or white potatoes, white rice, or white pasta and with a variety of nutritious ingredients, such as vegetables, lean meats, poultry, or seafood, beans and other legumes, and/or whole grains like quinoa, and barley (Phase 2). Try a black bean soup, or a soup made with broccoli or cauliflower in a beef, chicken, or vegetable broth base. Chilled tomato- or cucumber-based soups, like gazpacho, are also a good option in warmer months.

  • Check out the “made to order” stations. Some cafeterias and buffets offer individual stations that allow you to select the ingredients for your own omelet, pasta dish, or stir-fry. If you want an omelet, your best bet is to fill it with vegetables like bell peppers, tomatoes, spinach, and/or broccoli. If you want cheese, make sure it’s reduced-fat. For stir-fries, go for grilled chicken breast, shrimp, tofu, bok choy, broccoli, green beans, bell peppers, and/or mushrooms and make sure the “frying” oil is peanut, safflower, or canola oil. If you’re ordering pasta, stick to a 1/2-cup serving of whole-wheat pasta and choose a marinara, pesto, olive oil and garlic, or white wine-based sauce. Avoid stations serving white pasta, burgers and fries, breaded chicken, and pepperoni pizza.

  • Postpone dessert. Many of the desserts in cafeterias and buffets are diet busters. Rather than choosing a dessert as you pass through the line the first time, wait until the end of your meal to select a sugar-free gelatin cup or fruit salad (Phase 2), or limit yourself to three bites of a decadent dessert if you’re on Phase 2 or beyond. Better yet, avoid temptation and wait until you get home to have a South Beach Diet–friendly dessert you’ve prepared yourself.

  • Ask for it if you don’t see it. If you'd like your chicken breast without the creamy sauce or you wish there were broccoli on the salad bar, speak up! Often food managers can accommodate special orders and meet your requests.

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