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 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.
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.
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.
310 cal, 26g fat
Chicken Pasta Salad
240 cal, 18g fat
Macaroni Vegetable Salad
240 cal, 18g fat
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
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.
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
310-360 calories per Breast, 180-200 calories per Thigh
Grilled Cheese (1 Sandwich)
BBQ Beef Ribs
Carved Rope Sausage (3 ounces)
Creamy Penne Carbonara
Pizza (Cheese, BBQ Chicken, or Pepperoni)
Carved Roast Beef
Wood Seared Salmon
Chinese Chicken Livers
Sides – Better Choices
Green Beans, Broccoli/Cauliflower Medley, Broccoli Florets
German Boiled Cabbage, Grilled Vegetables, Seasoned Green Beans, Steamed Carrots
Broccoli Florets and Cheese Sauce, Cauliflower AuGratin, Sauteed Zucchini
Vegetable Rice Pilaf, Green Cabbage, Corn on the Cob, Sweet Potatoes
Sides – Worst Choices
It’s insanely salty, too.
Grilled Cowboy Potatoes
French Fries (22 fries)
Jo Jo Potatoes (1 tong)
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
Italian Sausage & Bean Soup, Navy Bean Soup with Ham, Vegetable Beef Soup
Chicken Rice Soup, Creamy Tomato Basil Soup, Minestrone Soup
Soups – Worst Choices
New England Clam Chowder
Potato Cheese Soup
Taco Bar – Better Choices
I don’t love any of these recommendations, but at least these are better choices than others.
Chicken Taco Meat
Red Beans with Ham
Pinto Beans with Bacon
Taco Bar – Worst Choices
King’s Ranch Chicken
Taco Shell Baskets
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
Garlic Bread, Loaf Bread Wheat, French, Rye, White
Breads – Worst Choices
Some of these have as many calories and fat as a slice of cake.
Blueberry Muffin, Cranberry Walnut Muffin, Strawberry Muffin, Banana Walnut Muffin
Garlic Cheese Biscuit
Please don’t think because it has a tiny bit of zucchini that this is a better choice.
Honey Cornbread, Jalapeño Cornbread
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 indicates the “worst-of-the-worst,” more or less.
Photo by sgroi.