All-You-Can-Eat Deals: Do They Actually Save You Money?

People getting food off a buffet line.
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With our food bills still hit hard by inflation, you may wonder how you can stretch your dollars not just at the grocery store, but when you go out to eat.

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Fortunately, since the end of the pandemic, all-you-can-eat buffets have returned. These literal smorgasbords of proteins, pasta, salad, desserts, and more can help keep bellies full, especially for bigger eaters. But, dollar-for-dollar, are they really worth it?

It turns out, restaurant owners use a few tricks to keep guests from maximizing their value at a buffet. But if you know the tricks and are aware of them, you can get the most value for your dollar and eat a meal worth well over what you paid. As a bonus, you’ll enjoy the higher quality offerings at the buffet, which also happen to be the healthiest for most people.

The Hustle recently discussed the economics of all-you-can-eat buffets in a YouTube video and shared the best ways to beat the house and get your money’s worth at an AYCE.

Skip the First Row of Food

When you’re grocery shopping, you’ll find the pricier items in the center of the store, because that’s where retailers want you to shop. But at an AYCE, the restaurant owners want you to fill up on the cheap stuff. That’s why the first row of trays in a buffet features the cheaper foods: pasta, breads, soup, and the pizza kids love. Skip that section and move on to the protein and vegetables.

Choose Lighter Weight Foods

Did you know that you will eat until you are full based on the weight of your food, not on the number of calories in that food? Most people eat three to four pounds of food per day, meaning their average buffet meal will weigh roughly 1 pound.

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To be able to eat the most, you’ll want to include lightweight yet pricey foods, like salad and fresh vegetables. That’s why a sushi restaurant is a great place to maximize the value of all-you-can-eat. Sushi is relatively lightweight so you can pack away tons (or so it seems), yet you won’t feel full for quite a while.

Fill Up On the Pricey Foods

While you may start your meal with a healthy salad, you’ll want to move on to the higher priced items, such as seafood and steak. These will fill you up faster, as they tend to weigh more, but each bite is worth big bucks.

Keep in mind, restaurants have tricks to keep you from taking more than your fair share of foods from the carving board or crab legs. Sometimes, they will limit your serving size so you have to return to the buffet each time you want more.

Restaurants often have workers serving cuts of meat so they can control portion size. You might think twice about returning for seconds, thirds, or more, because you feel the worker is judging you. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. But if you want to get your money’s worth at an all-you-can-eat buffet, the carving station is where it’s at.

Restaurant-Specific Tips

If you’re dining at a Chinese buffet, you’ll want to encourage the hibachi chef to pile the meat and veggies high on your plate (you can do this by requesting an assortment of beef, chicken and pork, if available) and watch as he cooks them fresh.

At a Brazilian BBQ restaurant, where servers bring meat, pork and poultry to your table, skip the buffet line or just grab a small salad. Save your appetite for the main attraction. Don’t be afraid to wave away the sausage, spare ribs, or fried chicken in favor of the lamb, ribeye and filet mignon.

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You can also request that servers bring out specific meats earlier in the meal. These restaurants, where a dinner typically runs $50 or more per person, typically offer excellent service and accommodate most requests.

Choose the Restaurant (And Your Guests) Carefully

By choosing high-value proteins like steak, you can get your money’s worth at an all-you-can-eat buffet like Golden Corral. But if you’re looking for substantial savings from AYCE, choose a sushi restaurant, a Brazilian BBQ, or a seafood place, where you are likely to eat a lot more than you paid for without even trying very hard.

Likewise, make sure the members of your party will eat enough to make an AYCE option worth it. If you’re dining with people with small appetites, it might make sense to choose another type of restaurant. Likewise, you’re not likely to get your money’s worth at an AYCE buffet dining with vegetarians or vegans.

How to Maximize Your Consumption

For most people, the goal of an all-you-can-eat-buffet is to enjoy a wide variety of foods for one flat-rate price, not to stuff themselves silly. However, if you want to see exactly how much you can put away in one evening, it starts with the right preparation.

Eat Light Earlier in the Day

Fasting before a buffet can backfire if you are looking to eat as much as you possibly can. First, it can lead to cramps when you try to eat too much, too quickly. Plus, while you’ll experience periods of hunger during fasting, it actually reduces the amount of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, in your body. That means by the time you are ready to feast, you may not be as hungry as you thought you would be.

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Drink Lots of Water

Likewise, it seems counterintuitive to fill up on water before an all-you-can-eat-buffet. But water actually makes your stomach more pliable, according to a YouTube video from Mashed. That means it can stretch to hold more food — which is a good thing if filling up at a buffet is your goal.

Another trick? Drink a carbonated beverage during your meal. Mashed says that competitive eaters swear by this trick to finish the last few bites during an eating contest.

Work Out A Few Hours Before You Eat

Have you ever felt really hungry on the days when you work out? You’re burning more calories, so of course you will want to eat more. But keep in mind that exercise actually suppresses your hunger hormones. You’ll want to wait an hour or more following your workout before hitting the buffet, says Mashed.

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All-you-can-eat buffets provide many benefits during a down economy. They can help you budget because you’ll know exactly how much you’ll spend going out to eat. You can taste an array of foods, all for one price. And once you know how to get your money’s worth, you’ll know you can satisfy even the heartiest appetites in your family and save money while you do.  

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