How to Plan Healthier Buffets

These eight tips will help you design a spread that fuels instead of fattens meeting attendees.

With the right planning, buffets can be light instead of heavy.
With the right planning, buffets can be light instead of heavy.

The humble buffet is becoming ever more appetizing to meeting professionals. While plated dinners can provide superb service, gorgeous presentations and delicious food, they also can feel stuffy or overly formal. And if service is lacking or dishes don't conform to all attendees' preferences or dietary needs, the whole affair can feel like a disappointment. 

“Buffets offer variety and faster service,” Dolce Hotels and Resorts points out in its “Meeting Planner Guide.” Speed and variety can be especially advantageous for groups that have attendees with diverse tastes, or groups that place a premium on networking, according to Groovin’ Gourmet, a full-service caterer in Richmond, Va. “Unlike a plated meal, if your guests choose something they don’t particularly enjoy, they can simply get up and find something else to eat,” it explains in a post on its blog. “Also, since buffets encourage guests to be mobile and walk around, they will have ample opportunities to mingle with each other. If you do not have assigned seating or are tight on space, buffets are a perfect option since not all of your guests will be seated at the same time.”

And then there’s the cost. “You will cut down your costs as compared to a sit-down meal,” Maria Ploumidou, an advisor at buffet systems manufacturer Buffetize, says in an article for Hotel News Resource. “Think about it. The self-service concept requires fewer staff, less space, tableware and linens.”

Buffets have at least one major flaw, though: They traditionally have not been very nutritious. And in a world where meeting attendees increasingly are becoming laser-focused on health and wellness, that can be a major defect.

But buffets don’t have to be gluttonous. With the right approach, they can be light instead of heavy, and filled with fuel instead of fat. Find out for yourself with these eight tips for executing healthier buffets:

1. Offer smaller plates.

A common piece of advice for people attempting to lose weight is to use smaller plates and bowls. The idea is simple: Most people fill their plate, then finish everything on it. If you have a smaller plate, you’ll still fill it and clean it, but you’ll actually eat less. There’s a name for this phenomenon, in which things -- including portions -- appear larger when they’re placed within a small object and smaller when they’re placed within a large object: It’s called the Delboeuf illusion.

Research is mixed about whether the Delboeuf illusion works. One study found that it worked wonders -- except when people are really hungry. Then, all bets are off.

Still, if there’s anywhere it does work, it’s probably at a buffet, where offering smaller dishware encourages moderation. “If your plate is too small to hold too much food and you are disinclined or unable to get seconds, it does offer some sort of restraint,” Charlotte Markey, a psychology professor at Rutgers University and author of Smart People Don't Diet, tells TODAY show writer A. Pawlowski.

2. Pre-portion food in smaller sizes.

Smaller plates are one way to help attendees control portion size. Another is smaller food.

“Cut sandwiches and baked goods in half, provide foods on platters for self-service and request ‘mini’ portions of muffins and desserts,” suggests the University of California, Berkeley, in its UC Berkeley Healthy Meeting and Event Guide.

3. Put fruits and vegetables first.

Obviously, a healthy buffet is one that includes plenty of healthy food choices. And that means ample fruits and vegetables, according to Jump IN for Healthy Kids, a campaign working to help children in Central Indiana live healthier lives.

“Everyone needs at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, which means one to two servings each time we eat,” the program says in an article it published on the subject of healthy catering for meetings and events. “Whenever possible, offer more than one variety so that most guests can find a healthy option that they enjoy.”

But it’s not just what you serve that matters. It’s also where in the buffet that you serve it.

“Fruits and vegetables may be skipped if guests’ plates are full by the time they reach the healthy choices in the buffet line. Placing them first encourages larger portions of healthy foods,” Jump IN for Healthy Kids advises.

4. Feed the eyes.

Speaking of fruits and vegetables: People might be more inclined to choose them in the buffet line if they look attractive. Instead of a bowl of fruit or a chaffing dish of steamed vegetables, consider how you can present food in a way that makes it look more appealing.

In a post on its blog, EventMB sings the praises of fruit art. “A traditional fruit bowl can be boring and often overlooked by guests, as whole fruits can be messy, noisy or difficult to eat in company,” it says. “Creating artistic arrangements or fruit sculptures can be a brilliant talking point, and they can also double up as decorations or edible centerpieces for the tables [in ways that] make them easier to choose, digest and nibble. Try presenting individual fruits … by carving or making them into new creations such as flowers. You can try ideas such as strawberry roses, tomato tulips or apple hearts.”

5. Serve sauces on the side.

The best thing about a buffet is the ability to make your own choices. Planners can make buffets healthier by leaning in to the idea of choice even further. For example, make sauces “self-serve” so attendees can choose for themselves whether they want them and in what quantities.

“Allow guests to dress their own salads, sandwiches or other dishes so that each individual can control how much -- and what -- is consumed,” Jump IN suggests.

6. Offer diverse preparations.

Choice also should extend to preparations. Don’t just serve fried foods, for example; also offer options that are broiled, baked, grilled, poached and/or lightly sautéed. “If serving a hot entrée, look for menu choices that use words such as these in the description. They typically signal items prepared in healthier ways,” Jump IN notes.

7. Display nutritional content.

Of course, it’s not enough just to have choices. To be healthy, attendees must make the right choices. You can help them do so by posting calorie counts next to dishes, the way restaurants sometimes do on menus. In fact, a 2018 study found that diners consume fewer calories when they know food’s calorie content.

“Diners choose meals that have between 8 and 12 percent fewer calories when the menus include information about their calorie counts,” Consumer Reports says.

8. Promote healthy options.

Clearly, people who are informed about their food make healthier choices. In addition to posting calorie counts, planners should consider advertising the ways in which their buffet is healthy. UC Berkeley furnishes groups with customizable signs and table tents that they can use to promote healthy food options at meetings.

“Make simple, colorful centerpieces …  promoting facts and tips on vegetables and whole grains,” the school advises in its healthy meeting guide. “You can download, print and assemble them; then place them on tables with or without a vase of herbs, wheat or flowers in the center.”

Buffets already are good for the budget. But as these tips illustrate, they can be just as good for the body.