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Managing Food Buffets (with Kids)

We just got back from a week with the grandparents at an all-inclusive resort (Thanks, Vovô and Vovó!). If you have never been to one before, part of what that means is absolutely enormous buffets of food. This is a type of eating that I haven’t had much experience with. Other than the cafeterias in college (which did not go very well for me!) and ones at weddings and conferences, I really haven’t been to many buffets and I definitely hadn’t been to many with my kids. So the prospect of this was really quite daunting—I actually lay awake at night before the trip thinking about how I was going to handle it. 

buffet-breads buffet-fruit

As many of you know, I am of the school of thought that the best way to encourage kids to eat healthy foods is to have healthy options on the table and then to let your kids choose what they want to eat/try that day and what they don’t. By doing so, you take the power struggles out of the equation. This approach as worked well for us. But how do you handle a week of buffets where the choices are, honestly, overwhelming and there are many, many options that you would rather your kids not eat?? I came up with an approach and it worked pretty well for us, here’s what I did:

  1. Let go. I let go of some of my hang-ups. I recognized that we were on vacation for one week and that a shift to not-so-good eating habits for one week was not the end of the world. Furthermore, I acknowledged that by insisting on healthy choices I was likely going to undermine a lot of the work that my husband and I have done to take such power struggles out of our relationships with our kids.
  2. Always offer fruits and vegetables. At every meal I made sure that we walked through the fruit and vegetable options and encouraged them to try something. I wanted them to be aware of those options, even if they weren’t specifically on the table like they would be at home. One of my boys eagerly ate salads, other vegetables, or fruit at every meal. The other, had fruit at almost every meal and vegetables at some. And that was good enough.
  3. Start with dessert. This was an unexpected addition to the approach that I took on once we got there. The dessert options were right in the middle of the buffets and were, of course, beautiful and enticing looking. So I made a deal with my boys: you can start with dessert as long as you eat other food after. Both of them loved this and lived up to their end of the bargain without any argument.
  4. Continue to offer new foods. I used the wide array of foods, some of which were quite exotic and different in their minds, as an opportunity to introduce them to new foods in a low stress environment. One of my boys loved this and tried a number of different dishes, the other wasn’t as adventurous but still found foods he was happy to eat and even some he was willing to try for the first time.
  5. Avoid the processed foods. One of the nice things about the buffet where we were staying was that the vast majority of the foods available were made from scratch. That meant that I could almost always find something that they were willing to eat that was not processed, but was actually real food. The salad bars were a great source of foods for us from crudités and grated vegetables to hard-boiled eggs and grains.
  6. Be clear that this is temporary. At the start of the week I had a conversation with my boys about how while we were on vacation there would be differences in the way we ate, but that when we got home things would go back to normal. And on the last day we had that same conversation again. The transition back was seamless.

In the end, they did not eat as well as they would have at home, but that is ok. It was vacation. I will also say that I used many of these guidelines for myself as well (although not the dessert first one) and also made sure I had a salad at every meal. These choices meant that I had lots of energy for a fun vacation and did not come back 10 pounds heavier.

How do you manage buffets both for yourself and for your kids?

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