Food Safety: 14 Foods to Avoid at Buffets, According to Nutritionists
Before you go to a buffet restaurant, follow these registered dietitians' suggestions for what to look for and the foods to avoid.
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Foods to avoid at a buffet
All-you-can-eat buffets are an American staple that provide a wide variety of self-serve food options (both hot and cold). Now, a few months into the Covid-19 pandemic, buffets and salad bars across the country are slowly reopening, but with one exception: Most are not allowing customers to serve themselves. The new precautions put in place, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Covid-19 best practice guidelines, helps to avoid multiple customers from touching the communal utensils used for serving, which may be contagious. Instead, some buffets are now taking orders from customers and bringing the food to the table like more traditional restaurants. (Here’s how to dine out safely during coronavirus.)
Now, one thing that hasn’t changed: the mouth-watering options at your local buffet. It may be tempting to overindulge and opt for your favorite dishes, but registered dietitians warn there are foods to avoid when it comes to food safety and your overall health. To help you manage your next buffet outing, we spoke with food experts who share what to look for and what to avoid. (Safely enjoy takeout during coronavirus with these tips.)
Sushi at your favorite Japanese restaurant? Yes, please. Sushi on a work buffet? Say sayonara, says Kendra Busalacchi, RDN, a registered dietitian at Sharp HealthCare. “I would never eat sushi that contains raw fish,” she says. “Fish is very heart healthy with its high omega-3 content. However, the problem is that raw fish, especially when not handled properly and kept at the proper temperature, puts you at very high risk for foodborne illnesses.” Worse, this risk for this goes up exponentially the longer it’s kept out unrefrigerated, such as at a buffet, she adds. Instead, opt for sushi made only with cooked ingredients or choose a baked salmon dish. Some rules, however, are made to be broken—here are the healthy food rules nutritionists ignore all the time.
This classic salad is a buffet staple. But if it’s made the real way—that is, with raw eggs—it’s not safe, Busalacchi says. “Raw or undercooked eggs pose a very high risk of salmonella poisoning and foods such as Hollandaise sauce and Caesar salad dressings are often prepared with raw or undercooked eggs,” she explains. When it comes to sauces and dressings, Busalacchi says, she avoids all creamy dressings and goes for a simple mix of olive oil and vinegar. “This is a win-win because not only do most of these choices decrease the risk for food poisoning, but they also heart healthier,” she says. (Beware of the salad mistakes that make you gain weight.)
You may be familiar with the machines that let you mix a custom soda from an almost limitless number of flavors—they’re basically a buffet of drinks. But when it comes to your health, all sugar-sweetened beverages can put your health at risk, leading to weight gain and obesity, Busalacchi says. “I avoid beverages such as sodas, juices, and sweet drinks that come with a lot of added sugars and calories,” she explains. “Instead, I opt for water or unsweetened teas.”
The dessert table
One of the things that make buffets so appealing is the number of choices—especially at a dessert buffet. But that’s always a recipe for over-eating: Our brains don’t respond to satiety signals from sweets like they do from foods like protein. “Desserts, in general, tend to be high in fat, sugar, and empty carbohydrates, and those calories add up faster than you think,” says Gabby Geerts, a registered dietitian at Green Chef. The solution? Either allow yourself only one selection from the dessert table or indulge in the fruit spread to fulfill your sweet tooth craving, she says. (Or fill your cravings with one of these sugary treats nutritionists secretly love.)
These all you can eat buffet staples are a health disaster on two fronts, Geerts says. First, they’re often made with mayonnaise which is one of the most common culprits for food poisoning when not kept cool. (And be honest, when’s the last time you saw a buffet keep their salads on ice?) Second, they’re highly caloric and despite the name “salad” contain very little nutrition. Instead, she recommends choosing a salad that is vinaigrette based or a medley of roasted vegetables. (Are you a pasta lover? Find out why you may crave pasta uncontrollably.)
Fried chicken is tasty, and chicken is a great protein source, but don’t be fooled. “Fried foods are typically abundant at buffets, but you should avoid them or keep them to a strict minimum since they are packed with saturated fats and calories,” Geerts says. “Look for pan-seared chicken or pulled pork to replace fried chicken. And choose sweet potatoes in place of french fries.”
Cheesy broccoli soup
Soup is a low-calorie appetizer that can keep you from overeating at a buffet—plus you’re getting broccoli. Not so fast—if the soup is broth-based and filled with just vegetables, this is true, but most soups at buffets are cream-based and loaded with calories, fat, sodium, and preservatives, says Amanda Kostro Miller, RD, who serves on the advisory board for Family Living Today. “You have to think of a buffet soup as an entire meal. If I decide to have the soup, that is my entrée, not a side,” she says. If there is an option for a light, broth soup, like miso or vegetable, choose that. If not, go for a protein-packed entree like steamed shrimp or baked chicken which will keep you satiated. (Skip the buffet and try these simple homemade soup recipes.)
Turkey or steak with a side of creamy, fluffy potatoes sounds like a perfect pairing, but it can be an unhealthy option at a buffet. “Mashed potatoes at a buffet often come from a box or prepackaged mix, have lots of sodium, lack the nutritious potato skins, and have lots of added fats,” Miller says. A better option? Baked potatoes. “Roasted or baked potatoes usually have the nutritious skin and you can control what condiments you add,” she says. (Here are some more of the best healthy-eating secrets from nutritionists.)
A build-your-own sandwich buffet is a common lunch option and often has some healthy options. The trick to a nutritious sandwich is to avoid sausages, salami, bacon, hot dogs, cold cuts, or other types of processed meats, says Nathalie Sessions, RD at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. “Not only do these choices contain a lot more sodium and saturated fat than fresh meats but they also contain nitrates or other dangerous preservatives,” she explains. Instead, choose fresh meats or go veggie and use avocado to make it more filling, she advises. (Find out the best meats to eat and those to avoid.)
Nachos are a tried-and-true favorite of game-day or other casual buffets but they can be problematic: Setting aside the fact that fried tortilla chips aren’t healthy, the cheese (or cheez) you put on them is a sneaky nutritional landmine, Sessions says. It’s loaded with unhealthy fats, artificial colors, and preservatives. Instead, go for plain salsa to add that spicy kick to your chips for one-tenth of the calories, she says. (Find out more weight-loss tricks only nutritionists know.)
Biscuits and gravy
A brunch buffet can be the highlight of your weekend, as long as you make choices that won’t haunt you through Monday and beyond, says Cheryl Mussatto, a registered dietitian and author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimer’s and Dementia. “Lots of people love biscuits and gravy but when they pile their plate with it, they are also piling on quite a bit of fat, lots of carbs and not that much protein,” she says. A far better option is to choose a veggie omelet as it has more protein, less fat, and some fiber from the veggies. (Here’s the best way to navigate a buffet.)
Soft serve ice cream
Lots of restaurant buffets aim to satisfy hungry families, and a common crowd-pleaser is the soft-serve ice cream machine. The problem is that for kids (and, let’s be honest, some grown-ups), it can become the whole meal, Mussatto says. “All-you-can-eat ice cream is too easy and tempting, resulting in lots of excess calories, fat, and sugar,” she says. Instead? Look for a buffet that offers frozen yogurt or, even better, Greek yogurt, she says. Skip the candy toppings in favor of fresh fruit and a sprinkling of chopped nuts. (These are the best and the worst ice cream toppings.)
Breakfast buffets aren’t complete without a giant vat of rubbery scrambled eggs. These may be a good source of protein, but be cautious, says Karen Z. Berg, RD at The Cancer Institute at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, New York. “For starters, these eggs are not usually made with fresh eggs and may contain fillers,” she says. “In addition, most places don’t keep them at warm enough temperature—eggs should be kept above 140 degrees—and that can be unsafe.” A healthier and safer option is the omelet bar as the eggs are cooked to order, and you can add veggies, she says. (Making eggs at home? Try these easy egg recipes.)
Salad bars are full of bowls of random toppings, often including shredded cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt. While these can make good additions to greens, they’re often not served properly, making them unappetizing and potentially bacteria-filled, Berg says. “The bottom of the bowl may be on ice but the food closer to the top isn’t. And let’s be honest, these items are not usually being turned over quickly,” she explains. Instead, she says, look for individually packaged yogurt cups, string cheeses, and other sealed foods. (Read on to find out the foods nutritionists avoid.)
- Food and Drug Administration: "Best Practices for Retail Food Stores, Restaurants, and Food Pick-Up/Delivery Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic"
- Kendra Busalacchi, RDN, a registered dietitian at Sharp HealthCare
- Gabby Geerts, a registered dietitian at Green Chef
- Amanda Kostro Miller, RD, who serves on the advisory board for Family Living Today
- Nathalie Sessions, RD at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas
- Cheryl Mussatto, a registered dietitian and author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food's Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia
- Karen Z. Berg, RD at The Cancer Institute at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, New York