Anyone who’s been to an all-you-can-eat buffet (or college cafeteria…) knows: Limitless food supplies inspire us to put far more on our plates than we need to. (They also make us crave and consume things we never wanted in the first place.)
Photo by Lisa Goulet
Map it Out — Your Action Plan
1. Double Down. Use smaller plates and glassesto avoid taking in too much. Not only do big cups, bowls, and plates hold more food and liquid to begin with, but oversized dinnnerware also makes normal portion sizes seem smaller than they actually are. Finishing a full plate makes us feel full. The larger the plate, the more we’ll need to eat before that visual cue gets to our brains.
2. Cue cards. The sheer awareness of abundance prompts us to eat more. So entering an unlimited buffet or cafeteria already sets us up for bingey behavior. To resist the environmental set up, portion out single servings in advance.
3. Log. Keeping track of what we put in our mouths helps keep us aware of how much we’re eating (so we’re more likely to know when to stop)
4. Hit it and quit it. As soon as you load up at the food bar, nab a seat as far away from it as you can. Studies show that the more distance there is between you and a stockpile of edibles, the less likely you are to get up for seconds, or crave more. (The mere awareness of a food being within our midst makes us want to eat it, even if we’re already full.) If it’s not possible to steer clear of more food, try positioning yourself closer to the salad bar than the dessert trays, since we tend to consume more of whatever’s conveniently within reach
5. Pay attention! Keep an eye on your plate to track how much you’ve taken in. Visual cues make more of an impact on our hunger/fullness levels than, well, actual fullness. Themore food we see we’ve eaten, the sooner we’ll realize we’ve had enough.
6. Socialize strategically. Surround yourself with people who eat healthy. Studies show we readily pick up on our family’s and friends’ eating behaviors. So nibble next to pals with more colorful plates for optimal inspiration in the dining hall
7. Slow down. Taking your time during a meal makes you feel fuller, faster. “Signals for feeding are sluggish in terms of influencing the brain, so they’re easy to ignore,” says neuroscientist Gary Wenk, author of This Is Your Brain On Food. It can take upwards of 30 minutes for stop signals to register. Pace yourself by savoring each bite, chewing thoroughly, and using a knife and fork (or chopsticks, if you can)
8. Stay Warm. Dining in colder atmospheres makes us eat more. Bring a sweater — or Snuggie — to the dining hall!
9. Cash In. If you pay item per item, use cash — not a credit or meal plan card — to pay. Plastic payment methods, studies show, weaken our impulse control. In the absence of immediate consequences (i.e. actually watching the cash leave your hand) we indulge more.
10. Tray Bien! Without a tray to pile plates on, we feel more restricted, explains Cornell University food psychologist David Just: “The more restricted you feel in the amount of food you can take in, the more likely you’ll be to grab the one or two items you really want — which tend to be the dessert items and main dishes, rather than the side salads or extra veggies.” Trays also give us the space to notice whether we’re missing any greens or other good stuff to balance out a meal.
11. Survey The Area. A full walk around the cafeteria to look at all the options may sound overwhelming at first. But, says Just, “knowing what all the offerings are enables you to make decisions based on what you’d like as well as what you should make room for on your plate.” Otherwise, we’re tempted to return to the buffet multiple times to make sure we didn’t miss anything.
12. Hold On. Sneaky waiters who swiftly exchange finished plates for desert menus are onto something. Without lingering evidence of how much we’ve consumed, we tend to forget. Same goes for discarding plate one, two, or three as you grab a dessert bowl and head back for the finale. Just recommends keeping all plates, bowls, and cups used throughout a meal right on the table as reminders of how much we’ve consumed.
13. Gum. Before you head back for seconds, try sticking a wad of sugar-free gum in your mouth. This can help sate that need to keep on noshing even after our stomachs are crying for help. Some studies even suggest munching on gum burns a few extra calories. (Not bad!)
14. Pre-Game.Eat a low-cal but filling fruit or veggie serving prior to hitting the dining hall. One study found that participants who snacked on a skinned apple before sitting for larger meals ate an average of 187 calories less than those who ate nothing at all
15. Picture This. Imagine your favorite buffet item while you’re walking to the dining hall. Picture eating it, bite by bite, in entirety. “When we visualize consuming a food we crave before we start eating it,” says Wenk, “we end up consuming less of it.” Likely, he adds, because this tricks our brains into getting habituated to (read: bored by) a food
16. Gotta Jet! Committing to some type of physical activity directly after a meal reduces how much food we stuff in our bellies, says Just. We’re less likely to ask for seconds when we anticipate a food coma getting in the way of post-cafeteria plans — like lugging heavy groceries, speed-walking across campus to class, or making a volleyball practice in time for warm up.
Buffets, cafeterias, and lunchrooms of all sorts set us up for nutritional shame walks. But pay close enough attention to plate size, progress on a meal, and the people around you, and you just might find yourself stopping before going overboard on the plates.
What are your favorite tips for keeping eating in control? Tell us in the comments below!