Ask McArdle: How do I optimize my ROI at an all-you-can-eat buffet?

Plus: the best time to take vacation

(Peter Arkle)

(Peter Arkle)

Are the crab legs really the best value at the all-you-can-eat buffet?

Chessboards and smorgasbords share a common trait: there are endless stratagems for dominating them, but only a few useful ones.

The Internet teems with advice on becoming a grand master of gluttony. Some notions are self-evident, like skipping breakfast before your visit. Others are tedious, such as cross-referencing a buffet’s offerings with the regular menu, then targeting the priciest dishes. Others yet require advanced construction techniques: in 2011, a Chinese software engineer named Shen Hongrui found a way to optimize a single trip to the salad bar by filling his bowl with solid, dry ingredients (chickpeas and potatoes work), then building a platform of carrot sticks across the rim. He then extended his bowl’s walls using cucumber slices or fruit cubes, filling the tower as he went. His metre-high novelty snack became so popular in China, it forced Pizza Hut to remove its salad bars.

But those who interpret “best value” to mean “distended stomach” are misguided. According to a 2008 Cornell University study, diners at an all-you-can-eat pizzeria enjoyed the food more when they ate less of it. Researchers posited that customers who felt the pie was piddling ate more to get their money’s worth. In other words, rather than aim for happiness through volume, why not search out a buffet you’ll actually enjoy?

“There’s lots of places you can go to fill up and gorge,” advises John Higgins, director of George Brown College’s Chef School and former executive chef of the King Edward Hotel. The chef advises focusing on the freshest food available—the roast beef that’s carved to order or the blessed omelette station—while avoiding deep-fried morsels or pasta left under a heat lamp. “When it’s overcooked, it’s just a blob in your stomach,” he says.

Also not worth the trouble, says Higgins, are those crab legs: “They’re hard to eat with a knife and fork…a lot of work for not much.” The crab legs pose a risk for restaurateurs as well; the president of Red Lobster was fired in 2003 after an Endless Crab campaign lost more than $3 million for the chain. But in most instances, people can’t eat a buffet out of business—it’s the food they leave behind that does it, says Higgins. A wise buffet manager puts out smaller platters and replenishes them more often. “The secret is a constant supply,” he says. “Otherwise, people panic and fill up their plates. There’s nothing worse than when you have to line up for the beef Wellington and it’s like feeding time at the zoo.”

When is the best week to take a winter vacation?

If the intention is to avoid Canada’s coldest days with a tropical excursion, start making arrangements now. The “dead of winter,” when average temperatures reach their nadir and begin their slow climb toward summer, comes in the third or fourth week of January for much of Canada, according to Dave Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada. Even for those not escaping to Bora-Bora, Jan. 25 should be some sort of national holiday, suggests Phillips. From that point forward, Frosty is living on borrowed time.

Is Bitcoin the only crypto- currency I can invest in?

Heavens, no. While Bitcoin was the first digital coinage—called “crypto” currency because of its reliance on cryptography to verify transactions—there are dozens of alternatives—ranging from the Google-backed Ripple to CoinYe West. I, for one, await a Krypto-currency. If solipsistic rappers can have their own monetary system, than so can Superman’s favourite pooch.