Healthy Options at Hometown Buffet

November 29, 2010 5:35 pm
Posted in: Menu Mondays
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Hometown Buffet
My dad absolutely loves Hometown Buffet. There’s a particular one that he passes frequently while traveling, and he likes to stop there for a meal whenever possible.

Hometown Buffet is owned and operated by Buffets, Inc. They have six different brands, which I believe offer a nearly identical menu.  As such, the information below likely applies to Old Country Buffet, Ryan’s, Fire Mountain, Country Buffet, and Granny’s Buffet as well.

After years of my giving him grief about his love of HTB — mostly for the sheer pleasure of teasing him — we had an interesting discussion last weekend about the place.  He argued that they have a good salad bar, and even more to the point, he claimed it was possible to get a healthier meal at HTB than at most other fast-casual restaurants.

So as Matty and I were headed home from our Thanksgiving getaway, we decided to give HTB a try. Now, after having had the full HTB experience, I’ll concede a bit: Dad’s mostly right.

The Upsell

The cheerful cashier took our order (“Two Adults?”), and then asked if we’d like to add unlimited beverages — a choice of over 120 kinds! — with our meal. I declined, and said that water would be fine. She then pushed one more time, asking us if we were sure we wouldn’t want coffee or tea with our meal — and she repeated that they offer over 120 different beverages (“For your future reference,” I think she said).

I’m stumped as to how they calculated that number. They have one of the fancy, new touch-screen Coke dispensers (annoyingly hard to use when you have only one free hand), which spits out something like two dozen different Coke products (and ice) from the same nozzle. They had tea, coffee, slushies, and a few others. Perhaps if they consider small, medium, and large to each be a type of beverage (with or without ice?), they can break 100?  Even so, it seemed a bit silly.

The Salad Bar

The salad bar is decent, though not spectacular by any means.  They have spinach and field greens (not just iceberg lettuce), hard boiled eggs, kidney beans, peas, corn, fresh sliced mushrooms, beets and a few other fresh veggies.

However, the buffet is not without its pitfalls.  The far side of the salad bar had about eight different dressings, none of which were labeled, and all of which looked unlikely to be healthful.  To their credit, though, at the “Spice Market” shelf, they had olive oil and three different vinegars — malt, red wine, and balsamic.

Temptation Abounds

After we each had a large and very healthful salad, we both felt rather unsatisfied.  With all those other foods beckoning us from the buffet line, it was tough not to feel like we were missing out by not going up and grabbing another plate. We paid almost $22 for this meal, after all, so it felt like we were also wasting money by not indulging in a few other options.

That of course raises a difficult dilemma for all buffets. Not only do you have to use an immense amount of willpower, but you also want to get the most “bang” for your buck.  It seems like the only way to feel fully satisfied at a buffet — both physically and emotionally — is to overeat.

Not sated by my salad, I went back up and tried the baked fish (I think it was Tilapia, but not sure), which was surprisingly un-salty and un-oily, albeit a little overcooked. I also tried out the Spinach Marie, a quiche-like dish. It was so horrendously salty that I couldn’t eat more than the first taste. I also had an inevitable moment of willpower weakness, and grabbed a few popcorn shrimp.

After we each finished off round two, we both wanted dessert. Neither Matty nor I would normally buy a dessert when we pick up some fast-casual food (no cookie from Subway, no flan at Baja Fresh, for example), but as we sat at our booth, with all those desserts calling our names, it was again impossible to resist.  We went up to the dessert bar and, actually exercising a fair amount of restraint, each picked up just one sugar cookie.

The cookie was small, so it wasn’t a huge indulgence.  However, the fact that we were so compelled to have dessert was important. We had already paid for it! It was right there!

The psychology of the buffet had defeated us both. Even though most of the food didn’t look all that good or appealing (it’s not the highest quality food, in my opinion — and when I indulge, I want it to be worth it!), we still struggled not to try the foods.  We’re hard-wired to be curious, whether that’s at the buffet or when we search on Google.

I dedicate a large part of my life towards healthful eating — personally and publicly — and most of the people I am surrounded by are motivated to do the same.  I have just about every advantage and resource at my disposal.  Even so, I couldn’t resist the allure of some fried foods and cookies at HTB.  If I can’t do it, who can?

That’s why I said my dad is mostly right. Yes, there are healthful options at Hometown Buffet, and yes it is possible to eat reasonably well there. But it takes an incredible amount of knowledge, determination, and willpower to leave that restaurant without eating an exorbitant amount of high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sodium foods.

Survival Strategies

So, you’re now on a road trip, you’re ravenously hungry, and the only other options along the highway are fast food chains. If you have a good plan, you can at least tip the odds in your favor at HTB (or a similar buffet restaurant).  Here’s what I recommend — and if you have other suggestions, by all means please share them in the comments!

1. Save a few dollars, and get water instead of the all-you-can-drink option. Since you can decide this before you walk up to the buffet line, it’s One Decision and you’ll have no choice aftewards but to stick with it, ruling out the need for willpower (at least for the beverages!).

2. Eat a salad first.  The salad bar is the first thing you’ll see after the cashier. Don’t walk around and look at any of the hot food until you’ve already filled your plate with spinach and tons of fresh veggies.  Skip the premade salads, since they can add 200 to 300 calories for one spoonful.

3. After your salad, drink an entire glass of water, and either:

3a. Leave the restaurant right then, or,

3b. Wait five minutes before getting up.  Spend time enjoying the company of your friends or family. This gives your brain a few more minutes to realize just how much you’ve already eaten. Then, if you still want more food, go get a few sensible items from the hot food line (see recommendations below).

4. If you must have dessert, considering getting just one cookie. Although that’ll add about 100 calories to your meal, they’re relatively small and still satisfying — and they’re a distinct, finite amount.

5. As soon as you’ve eaten the cookie (or better yet, while you’re eating the cookie), leave the restaurant.

Okay, so on to the recommendations.  Unfortunately, they don’t give sodium information for any of their foods, so I’m going to have to go primarily by calories and a few sodium guesstimates. The menu at HTB changes frequently, so not all of the options listed here are always available, and I haven’t listed all of the options.

Salad Bar – Better Choices

Olive Oil & Vinegar
Skip the prepared dressings. Although some of them are lower in calories, I’m almost positive they’ll be very high in sodium. Instead, grab a little paper cup at the Spice Market, fill it half-way with olive oil and then top it off with the vinegar of your choice. Mix with a fork and drizzle it on your salad.

Cucumbers, Mushrooms, Radishes, Red Onions, Cherry Peppers, Broccoli, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cherry Tomatoes, Peel & Eat Shrimp, Corn, Garbanzo Beans, Kidney Beans, Peas, Raisins, Hummus, Pickled Beets, Sunflower Seeds
All of these are terrific choices!

Artichokes, Cherry Peppers, Cottage Cheese, Olives, Jalapeños, Pepperoncini, Chicken Breast, and Corn Salsa
These are good choices, but likely to have higher sodium content. Add sparingly!

Salad Bar – Worst Choices

The prepared salads are generally high in calories and fat, and likely high in sodium. Here are a few examples of the worst offenders.

Nutrition information listed is for “1 spoon,” which is generally around 100 grams. The saturated fat is fairly low on most of these (only a few grams), but if it’s high I’ll specify.

Seafood Salad X X
310 cal, 26g fat

Chicken Pasta Salad X
240 cal, 18g fat

Macaroni Vegetable Salad X
240 cal, 18g fat

Strawberry Whip X X
230 cal, 11g sat fat, 18g total fat

Italian Pasta Salad
190 cal, 13g fat

Seven Layer Salad
190 cal, 17g fat

Broccoli Bacon Salad
180 cal, 13g fat

Creamy Pea Salad
180 cal, 15g fat

Ambrosia
160 cal, 8g sat fat, 9g total fat

Entrées – Better Choices

“Entrées” at HTB pretty much means “Meat.”  Best way to go is the Baked Fish. If you want poultry, go for a wing or a drumstick — not a thigh or breast — and save about half the calories.

I’m going to assume everything is fairly high in sodium, but will note any possible exceptions. Some dishes are traditionally much higher in sodium, so I’ll put those under worst choices.  Again, I have to guess, since HTB does not give sodium information on their website.

Baked Fish
90 calories
The one I had was only lightly seasoned; it seemed like it was low in sodium and fat.

Traditional Baked Chicken, Rotisserie Chicken, Roasted Jerk Chicken, Country BBQ Chicken
80-100 calories per Wing or Drumstick

Oven Roasted Rotisserie Style Turkey, BBQ Beef, Kung Pao Beef, Beef & Broccoli Stir-Fry, Carved Ham, Chicken Zucchini Stir-Fry
80-100 calories per Piece/Spoonful

Entrées – Worst Choices

I suggest avoiding anything breaded or fried. If you want poultry, go for a wing or a drumstick — not a thigh or breast — and save about half the calories.

Traditional Baked Chicken, Rotisserie Chicken, Roasted Jerk Chicken, Country BBQ Chicken, Hand-Breaded Fried Chicken X
310-360 calories per Breast, 180-200 calories per Thigh

Orange Chicken X
340 cal

Clam Strips X
320 cal

Grilled Cheese (1 Sandwich) X
310 cal

BBQ Beef Ribs X
300 cal

Carved Rope Sausage (3 ounces)
270 cal

Creamy Penne Carbonara
260 cal

Shrimp Scampi
260 cal

Pizza (Cheese, BBQ Chicken, or Pepperoni)
150-250 cal

Carved Roast Beef
230 cal

Chicken Alfredo
230 cal

Wood Seared Salmon
220 cal

Chinese Chicken Livers
200 cal

Sides – Better Choices

Green Beans, Broccoli/Cauliflower Medley, Broccoli Florets
15-25 cal

German Boiled Cabbage, Grilled Vegetables, Seasoned Green Beans, Steamed Carrots
40 cal

Broccoli Florets and Cheese Sauce, Cauliflower AuGratin, Sauteed Zucchini
50 cal

Vegetable Rice Pilaf, Green Cabbage, Corn on the Cob, Sweet Potatoes
60-80 cal

Sides – Worst Choices

Cornbread Dressing X
220 cal

Fried Okra X
220 cal

Spinach Marie X
190 cal
It’s insanely salty, too.

Grilled Cowboy Potatoes X
180 cal

French Fries (22 fries) X
170 cal

Jo Jo Potatoes (1 tong) X
160 cal

Baked Potatoes
150 cal

Bread Dressing
150 cal

Soups – Better Choices

Without knowing the sodium in the soups (which are notoriously high in sodium just about everywhere), it’s tough to really make good recommendations. At least these are the lowest calorie options. This is per 4-ounce ladle.

Chicken Tortilla Soup, French Onion Soup
40 cal

Italian Sausage & Bean Soup, Navy Bean Soup with Ham, Vegetable Beef Soup
50 cal

Chicken Rice Soup, Creamy Tomato Basil Soup, Minestrone Soup
60 cal

Soups – Worst Choices

New England Clam Chowder X
150 cal

Potato Cheese Soup X
120 cal

Taco Bar – Better Choices

I don’t love any of these recommendations, but at least these are better choices than others.

Steak Fajita
120 cal

Chicken Fajita
150 cal

Chicken Taco Meat
70 cal

Red Beans with Ham
50 cal

Pinto Beans with Bacon
70 cal

Refried Beans
80 cal

Taco Bar – Worst Choices

Enchiladas, all X
250 cal

Chicken Chilaquiles X
240 cal

King’s Ranch Chicken X
200 cal

Taco Shell Baskets
160 cal

Nacho Chips
70 cal

Breads – Better Choices

None of the bread choices are great, since they have no whole grains. I’ll list a few of the lower-calorie options, though.

English Muffins (dry), Pumpernickel
60 cal

Garlic Bread, Loaf Bread Wheat, French, Rye, White
70 cal

Breads – Worst Choices

Some of these have as many calories and fat as a slice of cake.

Corn Muffin X
320 cal

Blueberry Muffin, Cranberry Walnut Muffin, Strawberry Muffin, Banana Walnut Muffin X
230-270 cal

Bagel, Plain X
250 cal

Garlic Cheese Biscuit X
220 cal

Zucchini Muffin X
220 cal
Please don’t think because it has a tiny bit of zucchini that this is a better choice.

Biscuits
180 cal

Honey Cornbread, Jalapeño Cornbread
160-170 cal

Menu Mondays are my recommendations for the most healthful options at chain restaurants. Although it may be tough to find “perfect” options when eating out, it’s important to choose “better” whenever possible, and I hope these guides will help make that easier for you.

indicates the “best-of-the-best,” and X indicates the “worst-of-the-worst,” more or less.

Hometown Buffet Nutrition Information

Photo by sgroi.

8 Comments on "Healthy Options at Hometown Buffet"
  1. Comment left on:
    November 29, 2010 at 5:48 pm
    Debi says:

    This is a great breakdown of buffets, Andrew! When I was younger, I loved buffets for their “bang for your buck” value. Couldn’t beat them when you’re on a college student budget. As a mature adult with all the knowledge of how food talks and interacts with my body I know the good choices to make. Add to that, being on a gluten-free diet. Buffets are a breeding ground for cross-contamination and I try to avoid them if at all possible.

    That said, there is a little Indian restaurant not from where we just moved to that has a buffet. It’s not the best Indian food, but I like the fact that I can try new dishes and not have to finish it if I don’t like it. And, most of the desserts are versions of rice pudding and fruit salads. The ones I go for, that is. :)

    • Comment left on:
      November 29, 2010 at 9:17 pm
      Andrew says:

      Thanks, Debi! It’s funny, I was actually thinking of working in a mention of Indian Lunch Buffets — those are generally the only buffet lines I actually like. Perhaps it’s because they often don’t have quite as large a selection? I find that after a certain point, more choice leads to less satisfaction, ironically.

      That reminds me of an excellent book: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Great read! :)

  2. Comment left on:
    November 30, 2010 at 5:18 pm
    Michelle says:

    Interesting idea about the psychology of a buffet. I like your proposed coping strategy. So true that I’d never/rarely order a dessert while out at a restaurant or picking up fast food, but will always pass through the dessert line at a buffet.

    • Comment left on:
      December 10, 2010 at 9:17 am
      Andrew says:

      When I worked on cruise ships, and ate at the buffet for most meals, I found I always had difficulty becoming satisfied. I’d eat and eat, trying to find that satisfaction, and instead would finally stop because I was bloated and stuffed. (Sometimes I’d use the smaller salad plates instead of the huge plates at the front of the line, and go for multiple “courses” — that helped a little, but not much.) I’d then sneak in a dessert in a last-ditch effort to find that satisfaction, but still to rare avail. To this day, I cringe at most buffets, even if there are some decent options. I find that the lack of satisfaction (due to the psychology more than the quality of the food) far outweighs any possible benefits of choice.

  3. Comment left on:
    July 17, 2011 at 9:57 am
    Curtis says:

    My friend wants me to come with him to hometown buffet today, but I’m on a diet. It’s a bummer they dont have just a regular meal and you have to pay $22 to eat a salad and some water. Buffets were invented for fat people who enjoy gorging themselves.

  4. Comment left on:
    September 9, 2011 at 9:47 pm
    Amanda says:

    Great review! You should think about doing Sweet Tomatoes next! Thanks.

    • Comment left on:
      September 12, 2011 at 3:42 pm
      Andrew says:

      Thanks, Amanda!

      I started to review Sweet Tomatoes at one point, but decided instead to focus first on just healthy salad bar options in general.

      For Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation specifically, for now I’ll say that it’s best to limit the baked goods, foccacia, and pastas… and go easy on the soups ’cause they’re very high in sodium. In other words, eat the salad! ;)

  5. Comment left on:
    June 10, 2012 at 4:19 pm
    Jennifer L says:

    I am loving exploring your site and reading what you have come up with as suggestions and research. I’m trying to live a lot healthier and make better choices. I’ve shared some of your posts on my Facebook page. My friends are really gaining a lot of good knowledge, so thank you!

    I travel for work. And it’s so difficult to make smart choices, but when you walk into a place with your mind already made up, it becomes easier. I limit myself to one night a week out, but sometimes that isn’t possible. So by knowing what I want ahead of time, I beat the odds. I still falter, but at least I’m getting ahead!!!

    Thanks again for all the great information on your page.

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