Out of all the situations that my patients find challenging, the buffet is the one they most commonly mention. No wonder that they do, as buffets are laden with many of the dynamics that can be tricky for budding intuitive eaters. Another way of looking at the matter is to think of buffets not as tests or proving grounds, but rather as playgrounds: a place to practice, have fun, and figure out which elements of intuitive eating might benefit from further work.
Consider the following factors and how you can use buffets to examine the role that they might be playing in your eating.
Quantity: As far as I can recall, every buffet I have gone to has been of the all-you-can-eat format without any external constraints to limit how much I ate. For people who are used to leaning on outside forces to put a cap on their quantity consumed – such as a restaurant’s serving size, the mound that mom puts on their plate, or a 100-calorie snack pack – buffets can leave them feeling lost and unsure when to stop. Some patients shy away from buffets for this reason, but I suggest instead running straight for them, as they present fantastic opportunities to practice recognizing and honoring our fullness cues. After all, without any external cues telling us when to stop, we have no choice but to look inward at our body’s cues to make the decision.
Cost: If you are a fan of the Phantom Gourmet, you have likely seen The Nordic Lodge featured several times over the years. Joanne and I went once several years ago to see what the fuss was about, and it certainly was an interesting experience. The adult admission price was lower than the current $125.00-per-person fee when we went, but it was certainly still expensive, and I found myself feeling anxious about making sure I got my money’s worth. Then I reminded myself that the entry fee was a sunk cost whether I stopped when I was comfortably full, made myself sick, or anywhere in between. Eating to the point of feeling physically gross was not going to somehow enhance the experience or make me feel differently about the money we spent. That is just me though, and I am not suggesting that there is a right or wrong answer here, as some people might indeed feel more positive about their overall experience if they leave a buffet feeling like they ate their money’s worth; but it is interesting to examine in real time how cost might be influencing your eating behavior.
Rarities: If you have attended The Langham Hotel’s chocolate buffet, you know that they do not allow doggy bags. Although our waiter did once discreetly slip me some extra napkins so I could wrap up a piece of pastry to take home, their official stance is you either eat the food there or you do not eat it at all. Feeling a pull to take advantage of a now-or-never, or at least a now-or-wait-a-long-time-for-another-opportunity, situation to eat something can be an example of beckoning. Even though some patients feel that eating in response to beckoning is a negative behavior, I disagree and feel it is a morally neutral action that is neither good nor bad. As I discussed in a previous blog, simply having an awareness of whether we are eating in response to humming or beckoning has its upsides, and there may be no better place to ask ourselves this question than at a buffet you rarely attend or may never go to again.
Scarcity: My college dining hall was an all-you-can-eat buffet format, but they nevertheless still ran out of the most popular foods sometimes. Although I cannot recall any specific examples, I know there were certain desserts that would run out quickly relative to the others. Whenever they were on the day’s menu, the race was on to get some before the other students finished it all. Looking back, I am certain there were days that I chose something not because I genuinely wanted it, but because I felt a competitive drive to get it before it was gone. Next time you are at a buffet and you spy an item that is running low, consider how your selection may or may not differ if the quantity were bountiful.
Dichotomies: One of my patients told me that when they were young and attended buffets with their parents, they sometimes tried to sneak extra quantities of “bad” food when their parents could not see them, such as taking some and eating it before they got back to the table. Some people feel compelled to balance out their intake of “bad” food by forcing themselves to take some “good” food too whether they really feel like having the latter or not. In reality, the dichotomies that people believe regarding food – whether they are good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, clean/unclean, etc. – have much less to do with science and more to do with the way we impose principles of spirituality on our eating. Buffets can be a great place to examine the role that such a dichotomy may be playing in your food choices.
Comparisons: Going back to our Nordic Lodge experience, I clearly remember looking around at other diners and their plates because I was curious to see how others were approaching the buffet. Some people take things a step farther by comparing their own eating to others. Such comparisons might be the basis for someone to feel virtuous or guilty about their own food choices. Beyond that, sometimes we might use the behavior of others as a determinant of the permission we give ourselves. For example, maybe we are considering going back for a third plate of food, but we do not give ourselves the green light until someone else in the party does it first, and if they never do, then we deny ourselves.
While buffets can feel triggering, they can be great playgrounds for practicing and developing our intuitive eating skills. Instead of shying away from the challenge, lean into it and have fun!