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Guest Post: Lisa Salinger

Befriending the Buffet

The following article by Lisa Salinger of BlindAlive, was originally published on August 16, 2015

Chafing dishes lined up on a buffet tableBuffet!” That word alone evokes strong emotions — delight in some, and despair in others. This week, a member of our BlindAlive Facebook group posted the following helpful article: A 5-Step Strategy for All-You-Can-Eat Buffets This is a great article, but as blind people, not everything may apply to us. Then again, not everything written in an article applies to most people.

Those who are generally best at applying suggestions are those who tailor them to meet their specific needs. After reading the article, I thought I would share six suggestions used by my blind friends and me to comfortably handle various kinds of buffets. Some of these strategies have also been used by, and have helped my sighted friends as well. Are you ready to dive in? Let’s do it!

It’s all in your head

  • Sometimes, we’ve been through buffets with people who don’t give us the entire picture. Maybe they are trying to look out for our best interests, and only list the healthy choices.
  • Maybe, for whatever reason, they completely skip those foods they personally do not like.
  • Some people don’t mention certain dishes because they can’t pronounce the name of a particular food, or they have no idea how to describe it if they aren’t sure what it is.

Three hot buffet dishes

What this means is that you are likely to miss out on something. Maybe it’s something you’d hate, but maybe it’s something you’d love. This is where a few gentle reminders are helpful. Everybody misses out at buffets sometimes. Either they didn’t see a dish they’d have loved, or they were just too full. It’s just one meal of one day of your entire life. Try to concentrate on the company, and on those things you genuinely enjoyed. You may not have missed a thing, so why let that fear be a controlling force.

Call ahead

Restaurant buffetIf you really want to get an idea of what is being offered, let your fingers do the walking.

  • If you’re going to a buffet at a restaurant, try giving them a call.
    • Be mindful of the staff’s time, and try to call at an off-peak time. In other words, if it’s a time most people would be eating a meal, plan to call earlier or later.
    • Keep in mind that they may not be able to give you exact particulars, but they can give you an idea. A description of a restaurant’s offerings may go something like this: “On our breakfast buffet, we have an omelet station, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, some kind of breakfast potatoes, seasonal fruit, some canned fruit, a few kinds of cold cereal, and a couple kinds of pastries.”

This will give you a general idea of what is being offered.

  • If you’re going to a buffet at someone’s home, you can ask the host or hostess what will be served. If this is your situation, you might say,
    • “I’m trying to plan so I don’t miss out on something I’d really enjoy.
    • I’m trying to make healthier choices, and I want to plan those, and possibly a small splurge or two.”

Of course, if you don’t know your hosts well, this might not be the best idea. Also, even at a party where the hosts may prepare most foods, others may bring dishes to share, so there will still be surprises.

A well-chosen code word is golden!

The word "secret" on a piece of paperIn the spirit of true confession, dips and spreads are my biggest weaknesses. However, my appetite for even my favorite things diminishes drastically if someone has sneezed on it or has committed the unpardonable sin of double dipping. I don’t want to hear about it after the fact. I want to know before it goes on my plate, but how? It’s not like the person I’m with can say, “This seven layer dip looks really good, but Little Johnny just stuck his dirty fingers in it.” There’s almost no way to say something without insulting a friend or complete stranger. However, this can be managed with a little forethought.

  • If you’re going through the buffet with a friend or family member, ask to pick a code word. This can be used when commenting on a dish that either doesn’t look very appealing or one that has been compromised, as in the case of the above layered dip.

Of course, for someone to comment on a dish that doesn’t look very good, this is a bit arbitrary, so it’s best that this person knows your preferences. In one situation, if a friend said, “Wow, look at….” I knew it was something I was best to avoid. It was a win-win situation. I didn’t get anything I didn’t want, and no one’s feelings were hurt.

Who made that anyway?

Assorted homemade dishesThis scenario works best at a family buffet. Let’s say you have two aunts; Aunt Sara is a wonderful cook, and you could eat off her floor and not think twice about it. Aunt Jane, on the other hand, is Sara’s opposite in the kitchen, although a lovely person, I’m sure.

  • Because you can’t see who is carrying in what dish, you can ask someone if they know who made the various foods.

Idle curiosity is the order of the day, of course. Sighted people do this too, but it is often a more subtle process, possibly involving slight head shakes and raised eyebrows. If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit obsessive, you may be right. However, if you’re working from the standpoint of a limited calorie budget from which to spend, these are ways to keep from having things you won’t really enjoy.

Categorize it

Beef buffetIt seems that in traditional and buffet restaurants alike, the menus have become more and more plentiful. In fact, the article cited above suggests that you walk through a buffet to get a general idea of what’s there. This is probably the hardest thing to do with little or no sight, but it is far from impossible.

  • Generally, restaurant buffets are set up in groupings often referred to as islands or stations. There might be one with all kinds of meats, one for hot food, one for salads, etc.
  • There may not be time for someone to name every item on each station. Often, you can get a general idea of what is offered by knowing what kinds of foods are traditionally served.

For example, it is possible but highly unlikely that you would find grits or catfish on the buffet at your local Chinese restaurant.

  • If there is something you are looking for, the best course of action is to mention it while going through the buffet. You might ask if they have any kind of ham or chicken at the meat station if those choices are of particular interest to you.

Pass on the excuses

Server behind a full buffet table with assorted dishesI love big salads, but not usually at buffets. Unfortunately, this is just the time when some kind of low-calorie, crunchy food would be ideal. However, the plates are often small, and I don’t want to ask someone to make frequent return trips. Also, certain kinds of salad fixings, varieties of lettuce, in particular, I find challenging to eat off a flat plate.

It might be simpler to go straight for the mashed potatoes and gravy or some other “easy food.” If I’m tired, or I just feel like I deserve a break, I find this kind of excuse is an easy one.

In recent years, more often than not, I have been able to remind myself that I am creative, resourceful, and value food that is healthy as well as good to taste. I usually start my buffet meal with salad and end it with dessert, although neither is very traditional.

  • My salad is basically a plate of vegetables I can eat without concern. A sample plate might contain cucumber slices, grape or cherry tomatoes, green or red pepper strips, and definitely some chickpeas. I can eat most of these with either fork or fingers.
  • If I want a dip, I’ll get a small bowl with either a little dressing or more likely, some cottage cheese or salsa. Having a mostly finger-friendly plate also provides extra incentive to avoid deli salads, shredded cheese, and other less than healthy but messy foods.
  • Dessert is usually another full plate, albeit a smaller one. This time, I get a small piece or serving of dessert and fill up on mostly fresh fruit.

What’s not to enjoy? I’m not depriving myself, I’m making wise choices, and I didn’t have to cut up all that fruit. Not everyone may find this enjoyable, but I actually like to have a few more veggies with my fruit — usually a slice or two of cucumber or a little celery. It’s just refreshing in a way that’s hard to explain.

With all of these suggestions, creativity is the key. If you are new to eating healthily at buffets, you might want to concentrate on one or two ideas. And if you blow it, which we all have or will, then gently take yourself back to the beginning and remind yourself that this was just one meal in one day of the rest of your life.

I love this quote by Maya Angelou, and I think it is a fitting reminder, whatever our goals:

“I did then what I knew then. And when I knew better, I did better.”

If you’ve been able to “do better,” either at the buffet or in some aspect of your healthy life, why not join us on Facebook or Twitter and let us know. We’d love to hear from you!


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