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How to Make the Most of a Buffet According to an Economist

I won’t claim to know a lot about economics, but I do know a fair amount about eating behavior, which is why I was fascinated by a recent episode of the Planet Money podcast. The episode “All You Can Eat Economics” aired on October 27, and it talked about economic lessons you can learn at a buffet.

This also included three tips about how to make the most of a buffet experience, tips that align well with mindful eating and can be applied in other situations – for example, the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

Tip 1: Remember the law of diminishing returns

When most people go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, they may not have much of a strategy apart from eating enough to “get their money’s worth”. (You can listen to the episode to get the economist’s take on that.)

But that leads to a very haphazard approach where you probably go through the buffet, taking whatever strikes your fancy until your plate is full. That means you have to go back to your table and eat at least some of what you’ve taken before getting more.

The problem with this is two-fold. One, you might not get to some of your favorite foods because you’ve already filled your plate with second or third favorites.

And two, you face the problem of diminishing returns: even if you go back to get your favorite foods, you won’t enjoy them as much because you won’t be as hungry anymore.

Instead, the economist suggested the same approach I used to take at buffets when I traveled for work. Do a circuit of the room first to see what your options are, and then focus on getting only your favorites the first time through. That will make sure you get your favorite foods and it will let you get the maximum enjoyment when eating them.

Tip 2: Try variety in low-risk settings

One of the best things about buffets is the variety. Not all buffets will have the kind of variety as the one mentioned in the episode, which was in Las Vegas, but since buffets cater to different tastes, they all have some amount of variety.

That can work in your favor because it gives you a chance to try something in a no-risk setting.

The economist suggests doing this after you’ve already had your favorites. By that point, you’ll have already gotten a lot out of the buffet, and anything else you want to try is a bonus. After all, your meal is a fixed price. You don’t have to pay extra for another bite.

I used to take advantage of this, too, and I particularly remember using it to try seafood. The backstory is that for a long time, I never wanted to eat shrimp because when I was little, I got sick once after eating some Chinese food that included shrimp. So I associate shrimp with getting sick, and I never ordered it at restaurants or bought it to make at home.

But over twenty years later, I remember being at a work conference when it occurred to me that I could try not only shrimp but any other seafood available. (I’d extended my presumed dislike of shrimp to just about everything else in the ocean.) That was the one and only time I had an oyster – definitely not for me.

To my surprise, though, I discovered that I like shrimp, as well as crab. I’ve since bought shrimp to cook at home, and I sometimes order it when I’m out. So, I feel confident about the value of experimenting when at buffets.

Tip 3: More is not always better

A downside of buffets, though, is that some people regard it as a sort of challenge, to eat as much as they can before getting sick.

In the podcast, one of the people (I couldn’t tell which one) said that when he was growing up, when his family went to buffets, his parents encouraged the kids to stuff themselves so they wouldn’t need dinner. Except, as you may know, it’s not as simple as that.

This approach isn’t good from a mindful eating or economic perspective because eating that much leaves you feeling bloated, sluggish, and possibly physically ill. This means your utility goes down.

I also liked how the folks in the podcast clarified that utility isn’t only about money or work – “it’s about your overall happiness.”

From that perspective, if you want the most utility from the buffet, you should eat with your overall happiness in mind. And that means eating with the intention of feeling good when you’re done eating, not feeling like you might be sick.

Pace yourself when faced with abundant choices

When you’re faced with lots of great options, it can be tempting to want to try them all. But going for too many things at once usually backfires, and when it comes to food, you’ll likely end up wishing you hadn’t eaten so much.

Instead, start with the things you know you like a lot. You don’t need large amounts of those foods, but enough to get the taste and feel satisfied by it. Then you can experiment a little, trying things you’re curious about to see if you might find a new favorite. And think about how you want to feel after you’re done eating and pace yourself accordingly.

You can also apply this to Thanksgiving. A lot of people seem to consider it a carte blanche to eat so much you need to sleep through the afternoon, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can enjoy your favorite foods and still have enough energy to visit with your loved ones, go for a walk, play games, or whatever else you’d like to do that day. Just remember, it’s not about how much you can eat but about your overall happiness.


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