Buffet Bliss - Pleasure Without Gain

| November 18, 2009

Is it possible to eat in a healthy manner on a cruise ship? Absolutely, if you heed the advice of our cruise culinary expert.

This is a report from our cruise culinary editor Janice Wald Henderson. Janice has been a longtime contributor to many magazines, including Bon Appétit Magazine and Brides. Her articles have appeared in Vogue, Food & Wine, Eating Well, Cooking Light and numerous other publications. Janice is also the Los Angeles editor of the Essential Restaurant Guide at epicurious.com. Janice Wald Henderson Cruise Culinary Editor

It's easy to have a love/hate relationship with cruise buffets. The love is simple to understand. Who doesn't get excited at the sight of all that tempting food? Juicy roast beef, carved to order, all kinds of pasta and rows of mini fruit tarts, glistening like jewels. So many choices and so much time to indulge.

And it's so easy. There are servers to fill your plates and others to bring fresh ones so you may begin again. On some ships, waiters happily get you seconds and thirds. You don't have to move from the deck chair.

So what's the down side? Oh yes, that thing called weight. The shock and dismay when we meet our first post-cruise scale. When we can't zip up our favorite slacks. We're quick to blame buffets when we pile on cruise pounds. The truth is, buffets aren't the only culprit, but they can make matters worse.

Because it's easy to overeat at buffets, many passengers avoid them. But they're a culinary highlight. Chefs go all out for showcase buffets. The array of selections, themes, live music - even the servers' special outfits - makes them great fun.

So if you love buffets as much as I do, here's how to achieve buffet bliss, which I define as enjoyment without weight gain. Simply change how you approach them.

On buffet day, I monitor what I eat at other meals. I don't eat less, just more healthfully. If you starve yourself at breakfast for a lunchtime buffet, you will overeat midday. Willpower flies out the door (or, in this case, out to sea) when we're really hungry.

If there's a noontime buffet, I fuel up (and fill up) on an egg-white omelet and fresh fruit at breakfast. I'll pick another morning to indulge in waffles and bacon, when I promise to have salad at lunch and fish for dinner. It's all about balance.

Rather than grab a plate and hit the closest buffet line, I peruse the entire setup first. I want to see all the options and what tempts me the most. I don't want to fill up on pesto lasagna if I'm drawn to barbecued ribs, instead.

I always begin with salad. Not the standard bowl of greens (which usually doesn't enthrall anyone at buffets), but the prettily presented cold or room-temperature vegetables, like braised artichoke hearts or marinated tomatoes. They're filling, low-calorie and taste good.

Next up is chilled seafood like mussels and shrimp. A little fresh lemon or cocktail sauce (skip the creamy tartar) keeps the calorie count low.

Then I sit back and chat up tablemates. I've discovered (and science backs me up) that if I wait 20 minutes or so before my next course, my brain will catch up to my stomach and alert me that I'm getting full.

That's good news, because hot food is usually the most calorie-laden. Yes, I'm talking burgers and fries, those thick slices of prime rib and mashed potatoes in a puddle of gravy.

So choose hot foods carefully. It's not hard. (No one should work hard on vacation.) Avoid white food, like potatoes and pasta, and anything creamy such as soups, dressings and sauces. Forget anything fried. If you must have carbs, choose brown rice, if available, or whole-grain breads.

Look for freshly grilled fish and chicken breasts. Hot off the bbq, they taste great sauce-free. If you want meat, pick lean beef or pork rather than burgers or prime rib. Fill the remainder of your plate with stir-fried or steamed vegetables.

Speaking of plates, use a salad or dessert plate for entrees. If you pile food on a dinner plate, you'll eat it all, even if you're full, because we were taught to clean our plate and old habits die hard. Fill a small plate and - surprise - you'll probably be eating the exact portion size you need.

I have a serious sweet tooth and like most cruisers, consider dessert a big draw. I circle the cakes, pies and tarts like a vulture circling its prey. Chocolate layer cake crowned with berries? Flaky pastries piled with creamy custard?

In the end, I almost always choose tiny cookies (so I can take two or three), angel food cake or nonfat frozen yogurt. I save heaps of calories. Remember, one slice of cheesecake can top 1,000 calories.

And in case I break my rules (hey, I'm human) and have garlic bread or chocolate mousse? You guessed it, salad, fish and sorbet for dinner. That's how I enjoy buffets and walk away a winner. Or at last, walk away as someone who can zip her pants.

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