Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bargain Food Source: Buffet by the Pound

Earlier, I talked about the buffet as an important food source for the unhomed, especially when you are driving across this great land. When you don't have a kitchen, a buffet gives you a rare opportunity for a balanced meal that you can't get from fast food or even an expensive sit-down restaurant. At a buffet, you can actually eat a lot better than most people with kitchens, because you don't have to prepare what you eat, just select from a wide variety of prepared items what you think makes the best diet. Sure, you can make bad decisions at buffets. From the girth of many of the patrons, I'd say that most people choose poorly, but the options are there for a healthy, nutritious diet if you choose to construct one.

The best nationwide buffet chain is Golden Corral, now found nearly everywhere along the Interstate highway system. Others are HomeTown/Old Country Buffet and Ryans (both owned by the same company). The price is reasonable: usually $8 or less for lunch and $12 or less for dinner (with nearly the same food at each).

I see only one problem with a buffet: I find it virtually impossible to not gorge myself! I consider myself a buffet professional from my Las Vegas years; I should be able to control my intake, but I still find it difficult. The cheapskate inside me is saying: "The food is all free now, so why not tank up?" It's hard to resist that one extra helping that pushes you into a stupor and eventually into obesity. This temptation is one reason I quit buffets for several years in Vegas. I saw my waistline slowly expanding!

Not only do find myself eating too much food at buffets, but I am not always eating the right foods, being drawn away by the richer stuff while healthier things like vegetables get neglected. Finally, I usually spend too much time in the buffet, often as much as an hour, when I could be doing other things.

But I have found a solution! There's a way to reap all the benefits of the buffet without falling prey to its temptations. Buffet by the pound!

For example, at Golden Corral, you can bypass the cashier line and get a take-away tray (as shown above). Load it up judiciously with whatever you think you should eat, then take it to the cashier to be weighed. The price is amazingly low at GC: always less than $5 a pound and often as low as $4.19 a pound....
To put this into perspective: Uncooked meat or fish that you buy at the supermarket easily costs $4 or more per pound. Here you are getting cooked and seasoned meat for only slightly more. (And you have to consider that it takes about 1-1/2 pounds of cooked meat to make 1 pound of cooked, making the deal even better.) You wonder why smart working parents don't stop by Golden Corral every evening. They could stock up on the entree, then cook the vegetable and starch at home.

What's more important to me, though, is portion control. When I fill up my tray at Golden Corral, I am making a conscious decision ahead of time about what I should be eating, rather than deciding on the fly as I gorge. Since I am paying by the pound, my internal cheapskate assures that won't buy too much, only what I think a proper meal should be. When I'm done, I essentially have a box lunch I can eat anytime. I can stop at the buffet in the morning when I am not hungry (and my choices are more rational) and then eat in the afternoon only when I am truly famished. When I am satiated, I can stop eating without feeling any pressure, knowing that I will still have the food for later. (I don't have refrigeration, but I don't see any storage safety issues in the few hours between purchase and consumption.)

Now, instead of gorging myself at one $8 buffet in early afternoon, I will go to Golden Corral when it opens around 11 am, fill up two trays with sensible food, pay about $6 for a pound and a half, and that food lasts me for the rest of the day. Pretty smart, actually!

I can even go into GC just for a snack. If I decide I want a salad, I fill my tray with just that. Since there is no minimum purchase, it ends up costing only about $2.50 for a salad I made myself, vs. twice as much at a fast food restaurant for something a lot more bland and lifeless. I can also visit the buffet on weekends and evenings, when the normal buffet price is over $10 and still pay only $4-5/pound.

When you think about it, this can be an incredible scam for the consumer. If you cherry-pick only the highest value items, you can come out with a lot more food value than you are paying for. Why spend $8 for two pounds of bacon at the supermarket, when (at the weekend breakfast buffet) you can pay $4.19 for one pound of crisp cooked bacon (equivalent to two pounds raw)? Same applies to a lot of other items: shrimp, nuts, fish, meat. I have even seen pine nuts occasionally at Golden Corral, which often retail for $20/pound.

It's not my intention to scam the restaurant, though, just get a balanced meal that's more than burritos and burgers. Since I am no cook, any buffet is going to give me far better nutrition than I could ever put together on my own, even if I had a full kitchen at my disposal.

Hometown/Old Country Buffet and Ryans also have buffet-by-the-pound options (although I haven't used them yet). If you're in a tony neighborhood, Whole Foods also has an excellent salad/hot food bar, with some more exotic (and putatively healthier) items than your common buffet (photos). The price, however, is almost double: $7.99/pound. Still, you can do a lot better there, both in value and nutrition, than at any restaurant. You can always use buffet-by-the-pound for high value items while using common supermarkets for heavier low-value items like bread.

When I tell people about my nomadic lifestyle, they say, "Oh, you poor thing! How do you eat without a kitchen?" My reply is: "Probably a lot better than you!" Furthermore, I don't have to waste time grocery shopping, preparing meals, cleaning up and maintaining all that complex kitchen infrastructure. I simply choose my food and eat it. What could be simpler, cheaper or easier?


  1. What a great blog! Really inspiring in general, and in particular for someone who struggles with way, way, way too much crap at home. ("Clutter" doesn't even begin to describe the problem.)

  2. I've been eating at supermarket deli counters. Hot food that is cheap. I do find it hard to eat healthy while not having a fix abode. I'll tend to eat individual snack salads, or pasta meals.

    But it is tricky.

    Or I'll just eat fruit, fruit is cheap. But, its still really cold here, and I often want a hot meal.

  3. Great blog, I'm finding some really useful information as someone who is a survival/outdoor enthusiast and also getting tired of eating the same meals or paying a ton every time. Good info!

  4. Just found your blog.
    Eating this cheap is interesting, but comes at a cost. Consider farmers & farm/restaurant workers wages, livestock lives etc. Do you know how those cows live and die, shrimp are fished? Would you consider working in that restaurant, in the feedlot, on the farm?
    Is our need for cheap food so important that is right to sell quality down the river?

  5. Nice guide! thank you!/I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.

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