Those people over there in the booths? They’ve got it easy…

Anybody can come to an all-you-can-eat buffet, plop their family down for the evening, and proceed to maximize their return on that $7.95 by completely gorging themselves on plate after plate of cheap, but plentiful varieties of Chinese foodstuffs, but what about those of us who prefer to dine on our mediocre Chinese food in the comfort of our own homes? Whereas they’ve got as many plates as they dare to go through without embarrassing themselves in front of the waitstaff to hit that maximum consumption mark, us takeout folks have but a single Styrofoam container in which to carry our entire all-you-can-eat meal! It’s a formidable challenge, but for those who wish to both overindulge on mass quantities of food that probably aren’t really all that good for us in any quantity and check out the latest episode of The Simpsons at the same time, I think it pretty much goes without saying that takeout is the only way out.

“So where do I start?” you ask as you stand there, Styrofoam in hand, peering over rows upon rows of sneeze guard-laden feeding troughs, your watch counting down the minutes until Homer strangles Bart for the 487th time. In the grand scheme of takeout, the ability to actually choose one’s own portions can certainly be a daunting one, no less, but I’ve been there before and just like when you’re not sure how many Christmas lights is too many Christmas lights (short answer: no such thing) or what’s the best way to dispose of your neighbor’s really obnoxious cat (oops, my lawyer told me that I need to stop bringing that up…), I’m here for you. That’s why when it comes to making the very most of your next trip to your friendly, neighborhood takeout buffet, I implore you to consider the following:

1. Survey the Land First to Develop Your Strategy
Amateurs start at one end of the buffet and just start piling in the first things that they like, and that’s exactly why amateurs end up with no room left for their crab rangoon or sugary donuts by the time they reach the end of the line! Instead, before you even begin the loading process, wander the line for a few minutes to take it all in and decide what your priorities are. Any architect will tell you that you don’t start to build a house until you’ve got your blueprints in hand.

2. Don’t Be Afraid of Your Food Touching
I know some people have this thing about their food being segregated into its own separate areas in their tray, but let’s face it – this column isn’t for those people. Think about it – those trays technically have three, maybe four compartments total. I typically want more than that many varieties just pertaining to chicken alone, so needless to say, when it comes to the buffet, we’re all friends here, so stack as high as you dare and if you can more or less keep different flavors in their own respective corners, you’re still doing far better than most!

3. Try the Soup
One of the key secrets of the takeout buffet is the elusive soup container – they’ve usually got a handful of round, Styrofoam or plastic bowls for patrons to take home soup or sweet and sour sauce … but technically there’s no rule that says you can’t put other things in said bowl as well, if you know what I mean! One can just as easily fill that puppy up with desserts or seafood or anything else that will taste simply disgusting if contaminated with the other flavors of your dinner. Just keep an eye out for the waitstaff – I’ve found that not all of them are exactly as liberal with this use of their soup bowls as others…

4. There’s No Shame in Asking for Help
Even with the best planning around, we’ve all hit that point where we stumble across a last-minute treat that we’d like to indulge, but simply don’t have the room for in our own container anymore. Well, you can’t put things back to make room and jumping up and down on the container to pack it all in will certainly end in disaster, but all in the same, friends help each other and if you just so happen to be eating with a true friend, how could they possibly decline tucking a few extra wontons into their container for you after all you’ve been through together?

Now there are a few catches with this one – it probably won’t work if you find yourself dining with a like-minded individual who’s also aiming to maximize his $7.95 return, and it might not bode well with prospective dates to make such a statement, either, but for the wife of many years who’s already come to accept you as the overweight, disgusting pig that you are – at least when it comes to eating – then you might as well take advantage of that for all it’s worth! ‘Til death, very possibly by heart attack, do us part…

5. “Closed” is a State of Mind
And finally, lest we not forget that the golden rule of the all-you-can-eat takeout buffet, at least from the perspective of those running the joint, is that your container has to be able to “close” when you bring it up to the counter, but that said, don’t let this small technicality hold you back from that third helping of barbecued steak tips or an extra egg roll that you know you’ll want halfway through your meal back at home! This is where dining with a friend or loved one really comes in handy – if your own container physically closes, but doesn’t exactly have the strength to hold itself closed on its own, if you know what I’m saying, simply stack your friend’s container on top of your own to help lock in the all-you-can-eat-i-ness while you pay the man for your eats. When dining alone, you can also attempt to accomplish this task by similarly placing that previously mentioned soup bowl full of sesame chicken on top of your primary container, but just keep in mind that the bowl alone still may not have enough heft to it to hold down the fort if you really went to town filling up the larger container…