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Published February 26, 2010, 12:00 AM

Dine at a buffet without going overboard

“Why haven’t you ever taken us here to eat?” my 14-year-old growing son asked as we walked into a buffet restaurant. I could see him eyeing the tables of food.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

“Why haven’t you ever taken us here to eat?” my 14-year-old growing son asked as we walked into a buffet restaurant. I could see him eyeing the tables of food.

“I guess I didn’t think of it,” I replied as we were ushered to a booth.

This place might actually fill him up, I thought to myself. I had a coupon, too.

We each took our plates and began our eating adventure. I walked around and sized up the dozens of food choices. We were surrounded by nearly every culinary temptation I could think of, including a room-sized dessert section.

I began with a salad with extra veggies and a small amount of dressing, some steamed broccoli, cauliflower and a baked sweet potato. So far, so good, I thought to myself.

Then I had some steak, pot roast, fish, chicken, scallops wrapped in bacon, deep-fried shrimp and roast pork. By the way, these were small pieces.

Later, as I paused at the dessert table, a stranger commented, “You’d better try that carrot cake. It’s really good!” I was reaching for a chocolate tart and a truffle at the time. So I had some carrot cake, too.

“We’d better eat all vegetables tomorrow,” my 11-year-old said as she piled shrimp and chicken on her plate at the next buffet line before going to get an ice cream sundae.

“Do we have to eat everything on our plate before we get more food?” my son asked.

“No, you don’t have to clean your plate,” I noted as a server quickly removed our bowls and plates and provided us with clean ones.

“We just undid our three trips to the gym this week,” my husband said as he returned from the dessert table.

Eventually, we waddled out of the restaurant. Next time, we need a better eating strategy.

“Mom, what does heartburn feel like?” my son asked.

Buffets are tempting, no doubt. As Cornell University studies have shown, abundant food easily can lead to overeating.

In one study, 54 men and women ages 18 to 46 ate soup from either regular bowls or bowls that slowly refilled from an apparatus under the serving table. The participants did not know the bowls were refilling. In fact, the participants eating from the bottomless bowls ate 73 percent more soup, but they did not perceive that they had eaten more. They also did not feel more “full.”

In another Cornell study, college students participated in a study that examined the influence of portion sizes on the amount of food consumed. The students were told that the study was about flavor enhancers instead of portion sizes.

The students had access to a lunch buffet that included soup, spaghetti with sauce, bread and ice cream on three days. They chose the amount of food to eat, and the amount of food they ate was weighed and recorded.

On the following week, the students were served either the same amount of food, 25 percent more food or 50 percent more food compared with the original amount they chose. Again, the amount of food they consumed was determined. Overall, the researchers showed that when more food was provided, significantly more food was eaten.

What can we learn from this? Don’t lose track of your portion sizes. As many people have experienced, losing weight usually is more challenging than gaining it.

Consider these tips to manage your appetite at a buffet:

- When possible, park yourself in a booth. Getting in and out of a chair is easier than getting in and out of a booth, especially when other people have to move to let you retrieve more food.

- Check out the full buffet menu before you decide what you really want to eat.

Don’t waste your calories on the first thing you see.

- If you want to try many foods, serve yourself very small amounts.

- Slow down and visit with your companions. Have a glass of water and some salad, fruit and/or soup before you go to the main dish area.

- Decide ahead of time how many times you will go through the buffet line or how many clean plates or bowls you will accept. Try not to heap your plate, too.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.