How to Avoid the Lure of the Buffet

Dear Helena,
I've been dating a very nice woman for about three months now, and one of the things she's asked me about is going out to a buffet dinner with her family. I've tried to make several alternate suggestions, but she says that her best family memories are there, and that's where she would feel most comfortable. I've been prone to overeating before, and I really don't want to make this mistake again and have her family think less of me. How much should a person eat, and when should they get up for a second plate?
—Third Helping

Dear Third Helping,
You're right to be nervous at the thought of going to a buffet. The greater the variety of foods on offer, the more we're likely to overeat. This effect is so powerful that we eat more even when the variety is only perceived, says Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. "One study has shown that if you give people just one color of M&M, they eat a few and then stop, but if you give them multiple colors they continue for longer."

So arm yourself in advance with these anti-binging strategies.

Commit to one trip. People tend to overdo it when they don't have visual cues to show how much they're eating. In the "bottomless soup bowl" study, the first group of participants ate soup from regular bowls, whereas the second group ate from bowls that were imperceptibly replenished through tubes hidden underneath the table. The latter group consumed 73 percent more, although they didn't believe that they had, nor did they feel more sated. Instead of refilling your plate until you've no idea how many dollops of mac ’n' cheese you've had, Ariely suggests making only one trip to the buffet and taking everything you want at that time. As he says, if you actually see your entire meal spread out before you, you're more likely to observe moderation.

Browse before you decide. Another study analyzed how people eat at a Chinese restaurant buffet, and found that thinner diners were more likely to cruise the buffet before making their selections. Granted, the study showed only correlation, not causation, but it seems like common sense that careful browsing leads to eating less: If you've scoped out the buffet thoroughly, you're less likely to go back because there's a whole seafood section that you missed.

Turn your back to the buffet. The Chinese restaurant study also showed that heavier diners were more likely to sit facing the buffet. Again, the study did not prove causation, but it seems like common sense: Out of sight is out of mind. Try to pick a seat that allows you to turn your back on that tempting display of shrimp tempura or Peking duck.

Mind your manners. Being meticulous about table manners may lead to eating more mindfully, and therefore knowing when to stop. At the Chinese restaurant, skinnier diners were more likely to spread out their napkins on their laps, whereas chubbier patrons tended to just dig in. The abstemious patrons were also more likely to use chopsticks, so if these are available, forgo the knife and fork. Unless you're a skilled chopstick manipulator, these utensils will probably force you to eat more slowly.

Have a drink. The strategies above will help you eat less, but they won't fix the fundamental anxiety and insecurity that are probably driving you to overeat. Unfortunately, this column is too short to address these issues, but might I suggest a nice glass of wine? This will help you relax. Obviously, stick to one drink only, or you could create a whole new set of problems.

Finally, remember that your eating habits are just a small part of the overall impression you will make. In other words, don't stress so much about eating "the right amount." If you're warm, witty, and charming, no one will care if you go back for more mashed potatoes.

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