Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The REAL Olympic Games: Olive Garden’s Never-Ending Pasta Bowl Returns!

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 51 - olive garden

As has been widely reported in all of the respectable financial media outlets, Olive Garden’s Never-Ending Pasta Bowl is back for a limited time. You may recall my last attempt to get my money’s worth out of Olive Garden’s Bowl of LIES.

This time will be different.

Much like an Olympic athlete in the months leading up to the Games, I’ve been preparing for this event tirelessly… sometimes eating up to seventeen meals daily just to ready my stomach for the most challenging task of its entire life.

You better believe I’m planning on walking away from this competition a gold-medal winner. Of course, my gold medal will be in the slightly less common composition of a giant wad of pasta sitting in my tummy. Hopefully gold-medal American gymnast Shawn Johnson doesn’t wander into the Olive Garden while I’m there; she’s so tiny that I might mistake her for an Italian sausage and eat her. I bet she’s pretty tasty too.

Tune in tomorrow as Punny Money Olympics Week continues, live from the stomach-pumping room at the hospital down the street.

Monday, January 7, 2008

More Buffet Strategies: Going the Distance Against IHOP’s All You Can Eat Pancakes

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

if i were you, i would hop away from this one

Not unlike the Olive Garden and its transient never ending pasta bowl of lies, IHOP periodically offers a short-lived menu item geared towards us gluttons for food (and punishment)—the All You Can Eat Pancakes. Always a popular destination for poor college students looking to score breakfast treats at 9 o’clock in the evening, IHOP was a favorite of mine growing up due mostly to its Funny Face pancake: a chocolate pancake decorated with whipped cream, chocolate chips, and maraschino cherries arranged in the shape of a face that still haunts my waistline to this day. It was with youthful eagerness that I made my triumphant return to IHOP this weekend, but it was with utter disdain for my personal eating abilities that I left.

Choose Your Flapjack Battlefield

IHOP realizes that pancakes do not a meal make, so that’s why the All You Can Eat Pancakes meal always comes attached to an egg combo meal. At our local IHOP, the menu offered the following combos, all of which came with “unlimited” pancakes.

  • Eggs only. Two eggs, any style. Hash browns too, I think. The cheapest unlimited pancake option. $4.99
  • Eggs and bacon. The option I chose. Two eggs, a ridiculously large mound of hash browns, and four strips of bacon. $6.99
  • Eggs and sausage. My wife went this route. Two eggs, that mountain o’ hash browns, four sausages. $6.99
  • Eggs and ham. The eggs, the hash browns, and an unspecified quantity of ham. $6.99
  • Eggs, sausage, and bacon. Eggs, hash browns, and three each of bacon strips and sausages. The priciest option. $7.99

a color-inverted boobieSeniors of the Punny Money School of Buffet Tactics should quickly identify the first error we made at the IHOP table: we didn’t go with the cheapest option. We should have gone with the eggs only menu option. Instead, we each paid two dollars more for a tiny bit of extra breakfast meat. While meats are usually a goal item at buffets, they should not be at this one. Those strips of bacon and links of sausage probably took up two pancakes’ worth of stomach space. Lesson #1: Go “eggs only” at All You Can Eat Pancakes. For bonus points, slip the eggs into a purse and eat them later or the next day.

Pancakes Stacked A Mile High—In Midget Nautical Units

Accompanying your breakfast meat(s) will be the first round of unlimited pancakes: two flapjacks, each approximately four to six inches in diameter and 1/4 inches tall. I had heard complaints about the misrepresentation of the thickness of these pancakes in IHOP’s ads; while mine were a bit thinner than pictured, they were much healthier looking than some of the others I’ve heard people have encountered during the course of this promotion. On top of the first and subsequent stacks of pancakes is a wad of butter. Lesson #2: Don’t eat the butter. It’s heavy, and a few lumps of it will fill a pancake’s worth of stomach space.

you may need some extra ammo for this battleIn order to get your next serving of pancakes, you need to clear the first two from their plate. You do not need to finish your breakfast meats or hash browns to get more pancakes. Lesson #3: If you intend to eat them, make your breakfast meats last. I found keeping some eggs and bacon around for round two made it easier to get through more pancakes. Otherwise, if all you’re eating is pancakes, you may get sick of them pretty quickly. If you run out of breakfast meats, you may want to defy conventional buffet logic and invest in one of IHOP’s bottomless pots of coffee or another flavored drink to offer the occasional taste detour to endless pancakes.

The second and future stacks come in threes, but be sure to tackle each pancake individually rather than eating multiple layers of pancake at once. Lots of air can sit between pancakes, and that air can fill your poor tummy fast. Lesson #4: Take it one pancake at a time.

Service With a Smile, Eventually

As with any full-service unlimited food offering, you are at the mercy of the wait staff to bring you more pancakes. Another complaint I’ve read about IHOP’s pancake deal is that it takes forever to get subsequent stacks of flapjacks. There are some things you can do to increase the rate of service, even if you draw a slow server.

  1. Dress rich. Bling yourself out with gold, diamonds, and anything else that makes you look worth at least a million bucks. Sure, you’ll look like Donald Trump in an inner-city whorehouse, but the server may recognize the potential for a bigger tip and stop by your table more frequently.
  2. Make eye contact. If you need another stack o’ cakes and your server isn’t getting close enough to your table, you’ll need to catch his or her eye to draw them in. Give them that “come hither, my pancake slave” look and watch them come running.
  3. Go with a friend. It’d be awfully sad if you went to a buffet by yourself, but I won’t judge you, fatty. If you hit this deal with someone else, you’ll clear plates more frequently, and you can split the next stack while waiting for another.
  4. Activate your hash brown cloaking device. Those hash browns are especially useful for hiding your current serving of pancakes so you can show a clean plate and expedite your next round. Then you can dig out your pancake treasure while your next batch is cooking.

Be sure to make your tip reflect the server’s extra efforts (or lack thereof). If buffets are not the norm at a restaurant, 20% may not be enough to properly thank a server who keeps your plate full. Ours did a fabulous job and earned himself a 35% tip.

The Syrup Showdown

While a few folks may enjoy their pancakes au naturale, most of us will need a hefty dose of syrup to coat these wheatie wonders. Each table is normally equipped with four syrup dispensers; here were the choices available at our table:

  • Old-fashioned syrup. This is pancake syrup with no added bells or whistles. By far your best choice for pancake deliciousness.
  • Blueberry. I didn’t even try this one because I have bad memories involving blueberries and pancakes.
  • Butter pecan. Probably your second-best option. A little sweeter than the standard syrup, but not too overpowering.
  • Strawberry. Too sweet, and not a good substitute for putting strawberries on top of your pancakes. Maybe try one pancake with this, but don’t douse your whole pile in the stuff.

I also suggested to my wife that IHOP should offer alcoholic pancake syrup at a premium price. I bet your stomach could fit a lot more pancakes in it if the rest of you were numb.

The Endgame: Pancake Buffets are a Goldmine

even honest abe cannot finish off five dollars worth of pancakes in one sittingI’m too embarrassed to reveal our exact pancake figures because we just could not get through very many of them. I knew going into it that this would be even harder than the Olive Garden pasta deal to get our money’s worth. Now that I’ve crunched the numbers, I realize that it’s not just hard, it’s downright impossible to eat even five bucks worth of pancakes at once. That’s because you can make about a dozen huge pancakes of comparable thickness and flavor to IHOP’s with two cups of Bisquick (cost: 20-30 cents max.) and another 25 cents of ingredients. To eat $5 of those pancakes, you’d need to plow through over 100 of them!

You better believe that IHOP is welcoming even the most experienced buffet eaters with open arms to this promotion. Personally, I’m surprised they don’t offer it more often and try to charge even more for it. At its price, it’s still one of the cheapest unlimited food deals around. But experienced buffet tacticians may want to save their money and invest it in tastier, more diverse menu options somewhere else.

Monday, September 24, 2007

More Buffet Strategies: Olive Garden’s Never-Ending Pasta Bowl

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

olive garden never-ending pasta bowl strategies

On the way home from a short road trip on Saturday with my wife, I had an intense craving for all-I-can-eat something. Seeing the sign for Exit 41A-B on Interstate 95 just south of Baltimore, I recalled there was an Olive Garden not far from the exit. After cutting across four lanes of traffic in less than three seconds, we arrived at the Garden and were promptly seated (30 minutes for an Olive Garden is prompt in my book). When our waiter appeared, we issued our orders for the holy grail of Italian buffets: the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl.

But by the end of the night, my wife and I would know this menu item by a different name—the Never-Ending Bowl of LIES.

A Journey of Noodly Anguish

For those of you unfamiliar with the way the Olive Garden Never-Ending Pasta Bowl works, here’s a quick rundown.

  1. A mere $8.95 per person gets you the following:
    • Unlimited salad.
    • Unlimited breadsticks.
    • One large bowl of a pasta and sauce of your choice.
    • Unlimited helpings of any other pasta and sauce in smaller bowls.
  2. For $1.95 more, you are entitled to “unlimited” meatballs and Italian sausage.
  3. For the late-Summer 2007 Never-Ending Pasta Bowl event, available pastas include:
    • Penne
    • Fettuccine
    • Spaghetti
    • Angel Hair
    • Linguine
    • Whole Wheat Linguine
    • Orecchiette (looks like a nipple)
  4. Available sauces include:
    • Sausage and Peppers Marinara
    • Smoked Mozzarella Alfredo
    • Marinara
    • Five Cheese Marinara
    • Alfredo
    • Meat Sauce
  5. The Never-Ending Pasta Bowl is a limited-time offering, but it pops up once or twice a year and runs for a month or two. Be sure to call your nearby location or check the Olive Garden website before setting out for the restaurant.

So for $10.90 a person plus tax and tip, you seem to get a whole lot of food and quite a bit of variety—salad, bread, pasta, and meat.

Unfortunately for my fellow buffet champions and me, the Olive Garden stacks the deck against you. I bet this is one of the most profitable all-you-can-eat offers in the country, which explains why it keeps coming back again and again.

Sprinkling Sauce in Your Wounds: How I Lost to the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl

omg you spilled the pasta, nooooooo

I will be the first to admit that I fell for the Olive Garden’s trap on this one. Despite following all of my usual all-you-can-eat buffet strategies, I still came up far short of eating my money’s worth; I had just one large and one small bowl.

After returning home and contemplating my horrendous failure for many hours in the bathroom, I discovered the secrets to the Olive Garden’s Never-Ending Bowl of Lies—secrets I will eventually use to defeat this buffet once and for all.

The Olive Garden has established an ingenious system of attracting buffet-loving customers and parting them from their money for little in return. Here’s how they do it in nine easy steps:

  1. They build a sense of anticipation and desire. As a limited-time but recurring offer, the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl is like the Olympic Games of low-cost buffets. The Olive Garden makes sure to bombard you with television commercials when the Bowl returns, once again triggering your dormant primal urges for unlimited pasta. The Bowl would not be nearly as successful if it were a permanent menu item. It’s a time of great joy for buffet fans—a veritable Hanukkah for pasta lovers.
  2. They price it cheap… but not too cheap. At just $8.95 for the Bowl and $1.95 more for the meat, you’re getting a fabulous deal, right? I mean, $8.95 is miles away from ten dollars, and you have $1.95 sitting in your couch right now. Seriously, if you can’t afford $11 for some never-ending Olive Garden goodness, you’re probably on welfare!
  3. The rest of their menu is overpriced. Around here, a bowl of Olive Garden spaghetti and meat sauce is $10. Ten freaking dollars and you don’t even get meatball one! For a dollar more, you can get the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl with its unlimited spaghetti and meat sauce and switch to a different dish on your next serving. The fettuccine alfredo has a menu price of $11! Seriously, if you order a plate of fettuccine alfredo at the Olive Garden during their Never-Ending Pasta Bowl events, you suck at math.
  4. The salad and breadsticks of evil. Like a judge’s gavel sentencing a guilty man to death, so does the bowl of salad and basket of breadsticks that comes with the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl as they land on your table. These two genuinely tasty items—especially to a man who skipped lunch and ate pizza for breakfast—will be the undoing of any buffet-goer on a mission to defeat the Bowl. Probably made for a grand total of 36 cents, the salad and breadsticks will cut your stomach capacity by as much as half.
  5. The first bowl. Your numero uno pasta and sauce selection comes in the same bowl used to serve most entrees at the Olive Garden. If you’re thinking of sampling all seven pastas and six sauces in one sitting, you may be out of luck; your Garden waiter won’t give you a second helping until you finish your first.
  6. One wrong move and you’re done. Some of the sauces on the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl menu are sub-par. Hitting just one of them can kill your appetite on the spot and derail your buffet train far from your destination. (The new Sausage and Peppers Marinara sauce was my downfall.)
  7. No easy victory for the carnivores. Those seeking to get their money’s worth by hopping on board the meat trolley are out of luck—you get one or two meat portions at most with each pasta dish. That means you’ll have to power through five helpings of fettuccine and penne just to get near a pound of meat.
  8. Service slower than chunky meat sauce. Ready for another bowl of pasta? You may have to wait for a while since you can’t even place an order for another plate until your current one is done. Olive Gardens are notoriously understaffed, and the extra attention required of table-served buffets means their workforce is stretched even thinner. The long waits between servings means you’ll be more tempted to fill up on leftover salad and breadsticks.
  9. The dessert menu of destruction. The buffet menu, detailing the available pasta and sauce choices, is printed on one side of a separate menu. What’s on the other side? That’s right—all of those luscious Olive Garden desserts. Just a quick glance at the other side of the menu and you’ll be tempted to save room for a plate of ridiculously overpriced tiramisu or gelato.

Hindsight Is 20 Bowls of Pasta: How to Get Your Money’s Worth Out of the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl

noooo, not the red sauce!

I may have gone down once against the Bowl, but I’ll be back… and with a buffet of knowledge to help me squeeze every last dime out of my eating experience. While my stomach continues its recovery, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned so you can fight the Olive Garden in the name of all buffet lovers everywhere. Here are some strategies for countering each of the clever tactics the Olive Garden uses to make sure you walk out after eating pennies on their dollar.

  1. Ignore the hype. Don’t let the TV ads push you into the Bowl challenge before you’re ready. Make sure you’ve had enough time to recover from your last buffet. If possible, wait until the Bowl event is three or four weeks in. Yes, you run the risk of the limited-time offer ending at any moment, but those extra weeks will give the wait and cooking staff more practice with the buffet system so your service is faster and your food is tastier.
  2. Don’t let the low cost fool you. If you go into the Olive Garden thinking you have an easy victory ahead, then you have already lost. That tiny price tag may seem simple to beat, but it’s going to take no less than five or six finished helpings to call yourself a Never-Ending Pasta Bowl champ.
  3. Don’t compare to menu prices. You might think you’ve eaten your money’s worth with just one bowl of fettuccine alfredo since the same dish has a regular menu price of $11. It probably costs the Olive Garden about a dollar for the ingredients. You could just buy some packages of alfredo pasta mixes in your grocery store for a couple of bucks. Be sure to use one of these more realistic measures as your buffet metrics baseline.
  4. No salad. No breadsticks. The salad fills you up with needless calories and nutrients. If we wanted healthy food, we wouldn’t be going to buffets in the first place! And breadsticks are just pasta in thicker, cheaper form. You’re best off asking your waiter to keep these items off your table. If he still brings them anyway, make sure your tip reflects your dissatisfaction. And if you must have a bit of salad with your pasta, bring lots of friends so the salad bowl is stretched across more people.
  5. Go for your favorite in the first round. Since it’s the biggest helping, you want to go for your favorite pasta and sauce combination right off the bat. If you have no particular favorite, you might want to go for a long, thin noodle like angel hair to start because you’ll expend less energy on chewing.
  6. Know your sauces. While variety is the spice of life, you don’t want to hit a sauce your palate doesn’t like. Find the sauce you love the most and stick with it. You’ll likely find that one of the alfredo sauces goes well with everything. Save the heavier marinara sauces for your later helpings (or skip them altogether).
  7. Don’t try to beat the meat. As tempting as it is to go for the $1.95 meatballs and sausages, you’re better off passing on them. Every ball and sausage you stuff in your mouth is another pasta bowl you’ll be too stuffed to eat—and fewer pasta bowls means less meat. Unless you’ve plowed through six or seven pasta bowls in the past, your chances of getting your money’s worth in meat is slim. That’s why it’s so cheap.
  8. Time your eating carefully. First and foremost, remember Tip #1 and come in later during the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl promotion so the staff has some practice with the faster pace of service. To help keep your eating momentum going, try to time the finishing of your current bowl with your waiter’s patrols through your dining area. Have your next order ready to save yourself and your waiter some time.
  9. BYO menu. Do not touch the Olive Garden menus your hostess hands to you. The back of that Never-Ending Pasta Bowl menu is especially dangerous with its pictures of tempting desserts. You’re best off printing or handwriting your own copy of the pasta and sauce menu and bringing it with you to the restaurant. Even better: write out your pasta line-up beforehand and save time when ordering.

Is the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl Worth Your Money?

would you like some whine with your pasta?

I’m calling the Olive Garden out on its false advertising. That pasta bowl of theirs totally ended when I walked out of the restaurant. I came back the next day, sat at a table, and ordered my third bowl and they charged me another $8.95! It’s a Never-Ending Bowl of LIES, I tell ya!

In all seriousness, I’m confident I could tackle the Bowl with enough preparation and the above strategies; but because of the difficulty of eating your money’s worth on this one, I’d have to recommend taking your monstrous appetite elsewhere. If you’re set on tackling a noodly challenge, look for similar pasta buffets at local Italian joints. Even at higher prices, you might get a wider variety of pastas, better sauces, and faster seating and service than you will from the Olive Garden and its Never-Ending Pasta Bowl.

See also: Eat Your Money’s Worth At Any All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Eat Your Money’s Worth At Any All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

punny money: the all-you-can-read buffet of money knowledge

My name is Nick, and I’m an all-you-can-eat-buffet-holic.

Thanks to an incredible metabolism, I’m able to eat 73 pounds of food in one sitting and not gain an ounce. This has spelled disaster for many area all-you-can-eat buffets whose owners break down and cry when they see me coming. I am a master of eating, and you can be too.

Okay, so maybe all-you-can-eat buffets (henceforth simply “buffets”) aren’t the best thing for your body; but a limitless food selection of questionable nutrition at a fixed price is a magical thing for people eating on a budget. One major problem has plagued buffet-eaters throughout the ages: a few plates later and you can’t eat any more. Even folks of gargantuan proportions often find themselves unable to down enough food to justify the price tag.

If things like health and being able to see your feet don’t really concern you, here are some tactics for eating your money’s worth at all-you-can-eat buffets that’ll have you striking fear in the heart of buffet restaurateurs everywhere.

General Buffet Tactics

Pre-Meal Planning

    pre-buffet food of champions
  • Do NOT starve yourself ahead of time. One classic dinner buffet strategy is to skip breakfast and lunch so that you’re starving in the evening. If you try this method, you’ll usually find that your stomach can’t handle the shock of going from “help, need food” to “12 pounds of beef” just like that. Eat a normal breakfast and a light lunch earlier in the day and you’ll keep your metabolism in top form well into the night.
  • Load up on carbs beforehand. Doughnuts, toaster pastries, and anything else where ingredient #1 is carbs will help ensure that you’re hungry and able to stomach a lot by dinnertime.
  • Clear the runway. Make sure you pay a nice long visit to the bathroom not long before your visit to the buffet. You’re going to need every last square inch of those intestines.
  • Break out the fat pants. Don’t even think of showing up to the buffet in pants that actually fit you. You want two sizes above normal at a minimum. Sweat pants work great too.
  • Don’t plan to drive home. Pretend you’re going out for a night of heavy drinking. Give someone else the keys, or know the number for a cab. You don’t want the thought of any physical activity creeping into your head during your meal-a-thon.
  • Get there early. The food will be fresher if you show up ahead of the crowd. Fresher food is tastier, so you’ll enjoy eating it more.
  • Bring a book. What, you had other plans for the evening? No way, Jose. Get there ahead of the crowd and plan to stay until closing. You’ll want to take a long break or two, so bring something to keep yourself occupied while your fork is empty.

Attack That Buffet!

  • Sit close, but not too close. If you can seat yourself, don’t pick a table too far from the action. Even a little bit of walking will contribute to your fatigue levels. At the same time, don’t sit two feet from the food stations because all those smells will hit you at once and wreak havoc on your olfaction.
  • sign on mouth: steak goes here

  • First stop: meat. The ham, beef, and chicken will likely be tucked away in the far corner from where you’re seated, but that should be your first target. Soups, breads, pastas, and rice are simply road blocks intended to fill you up quickly and save the restaurant money.
  • Your beverage of choice: nothing. Drink as little as possible. Liquids take up space in your stomach that could be better used for food. If you must, pour yourself a half glass of water and take a sip after every plate–just enough to cleanse your palate for the next round.
  • Second stop: meat. Seriously, load up on meat if you want your money’s worth. At full-service carving stations, let the carver keep loading your plate until it’s full of dead animal. Don’t be tempted to shove some mashed potatoes on the side to fill the gap in that plate.
  • Third stop: meat. Or maybe seafood. Just don’t fall for those generic-looking white fish fillets you’ll sometimes see. They usually taste terrible and are cheaper than tender slices of beef.
  • Fourth stop: something else. If you’re still eating after downing a few pounds of pork and poultry, you’re probably close to breaking even. Feel free to sample some of the other wares. Bread should still be a no-no because it’s dirt cheap and will fill your tummy faster than you can say “I gotta puke.”
  • Take a break. Now is probably a good time to break out that book and pause for a bit. Avoid the temptation to down a mug of soda. The only digestive aid you should use right now is time.
  • Fifth through ??? stops: victory! Once you’ve gotten your money’s worth, it’s time to celebrate your win. Grab a brownie, smother it with ice cream, toss on every topping in sight, and top it all off with a big slice of roast beef. Mmmmm.


  • Resist the urge to sleep. You’ve just eaten 13 pounds of the finest food $10 can buy. Along comes Mr. Sandman ready to knock you out, but you don’t want to give in to Dreamland just yet. Try to stay up for at least three hours after finishing at the buffet to allow your upper digestive system time to process your meal. This will help you get through the night without feeling like you ate a grenade.
  • water makes your stomach stop burning sometimes

  • Now is a good time for some water. You know how your body is normally 70% water? After a buffet, it probably drops to about 12% water for a bit. Drink a glass or two of water to refill your body’s liquid levels. It’ll aid digestion too.
  • Stop eating. If you need to eat anything before the next morning, you obviously left the buffet without squeezing it for every last dime. Padlock the fridge if you must–your eating is done for today.
  • Be prepared for an ungrateful stomach. You just gave it all this wonderful food, but your stomach returns the favor with aches, pains, cramps, and rumbling. Keep your favorite over-the-counter digestive medicines on hand, though you may find that a good night’s rest is all you need to put a wild food night behind you.
  • Don’t repeat for a while. You probably just shaved a few days off your normal life span, so hold off on making a return trip to the buffet for at least a month or two. Resume your normal healthy diet, get plenty of exercise, and try not to eat out too much.

Certain people have other strategies that work for them. For example, some may swear that exercise, tons of water, or even sex before the buffet helps them put away more food. You’ll have to experiment with these and other activities to see what, if anything, helps boost your eating power.

All-You-Can-Eat Case Studies

Not all buffets are created equal. Here’s a look at a few different buffets and some tips for getting your money’s worth at each.

Case Study: CiCi’s Pizza

cicis pizzaMenu: Pizza, salad, pasta, dessert, soda.
Price: $4-5.
Overview: This is about as cheap as all-you-can-eat buffets get. How can CiCi’s fill your stomach for five bucks or less and still stay in business? It’s simple–most of the food is cheap and easy to make. The pizzas are shipped frozen and heated on a conveyor belt. The salad ingredients come in bulk; same with the deserts.
Strategies for getting your money’s worth:

  • Soda no-no. Jenn at Frugal Upstate reminded me of the #1 rule for CiCi’s Pizza: don’t buy sodas. Ask for water and you’ll get a free glass for water. Soda is about $1.50 by itself, and you’d have to drink a lot of it (or eat more pizza) to make back your money.
  • Know your pizzas. Come on, how hard can it be to eat five dollars worth of pizza? When the pizzas probably cost about a buck each, very hard. The meat-topped or specialty pizzas are comparable to those frozen pizzas you can get in the grocery store for around $3 each on sale. You’ll need to down the equivalent of one-and-a-half to two pizzas to get your money’s worth here. Avoid the plain cheese pizzas, and watch out for the colorful pizzas with peppers and other ingredients that can do a quick number on your tummy.
  • Go for the sauce. You’ll notice one keep ingredient missing from most of CiCi’s pizzas: tomato sauce. That’s because it would be the most expensive ingredient, and they figure you won’t miss something that’s usually hidden under the cheese anyway. Get around this devilish plot by topping your slices with the sauce you find over by the pasta. And don’t touch the pasta.
  • Alternate strategy: load up on salad. One day, I plan to show up at CiCi’s, grab the canister of cherry tomatoes, and have at it. Some of the salad fixin’s (including the lettuce) can provide a delicious meal that’ll certainly cover your bill after just a few plates.

Case Study: Old Country Buffet

old country buffetMenu: Salad, meats, entrees, soups, desserts, various beverages.
Price: About $10 for dinner.
Overview: When America says “buffet,” Old Country Buffet is what comes to mind–dozens of food stations featuring more dishes than you’ll ever know how to make. Unfortunately most of the food is of inferior quality, but there are a few key items you can load up on to make sure you meet your quota.
Strategies for getting your money’s worth:

  • Meat for the win! Those carving stations are just begging for your mouth. Don’t hesitate to stand there while the chef cuts slice after slice and loads your plate full. Ignore the groans and grimaces of other patrons. Get. That. Meat.
  • Watch out for those tricky entrees. “Ooh, chicken casserole. It’s meat, so it’s a good deal.” Wrong! Meat may be an ingredient, but you’re probably being drawn into a food composed of cheaper ingredients like bread or veggies. You’d do best to avoid the entree table completely and compose your own dishes… made of at least 95% meat, of course.
  • If you must drink, go for the white stuff. If you’re one of those people who must follow eat bite with a beverage, only milk comes close to being a good deal. It’s the most expensive drink per volume at Old Country, and it tastes pretty good too.

Case Study: Chinese & Japanese Buffets

asian buffetsMenu: Sushi, General Tso’s Chicken, and a whole lot of other stuff I can’t pronounce.
Price: Under $10 for lunch, $12-15 for dinner.
Overview: There is some yummy food to be had at the various types of Asian buffets. You’ll find some of your favorite items from the classic Chinese carry-out menu along with some other… surprises.
Strategies for getting your money’s worth:

  • Eat what you like. It’s not too hard to get your money’s worth at these places. As always, shoot for the meat, but feel free to feast on sushi and other pricey items. Foods to avoid: spring and egg rolls, soups (except miso soup, which is too tasty to pass up), and dishes composed of mostly vegetables.
  • Don’t try new things. Buffet time, despite its limitless food supply, is not the time to experiment. You might think that big white puff ball thing is a delicious pastry, but when it takes you two hours to chew it, you might quickly lose your appetite.
  • Beware of the desserts. They look weird for a reason–because they taste weird, too! Those sheets of cake and bite-sized cookies might look appetizing, but they’re often very dry. Soft-serve ice cream is hit or miss at Asian buffets, but it’s probably your best bet for dessert.

Oh, one last bonus buffet tip, because I know I’ll hear about it if I don’t come out and say it:

  • Buffets are bad for you. Yeah, you probably shouldn’t follow any of the above advice if you’re looking for a healthy dining experience. Instead, listen to what this article says about eating healthy at a buffet. Or just do the exact opposite of everything I said earlier.