The Psychology of All-You-Can-Eat Buffets

all you can eat buffet

Buffets are a psycho-social food experiment which is ripe for analysis in order to determine who we are as eaters. Sometimes, the overwhelming abundance, variety and tantalizing presentation of foods can override our good judgment. For some of us, such a wealth of choices brings out primitive urges for excess in preparation for feast or famine.

I remember visiting Las Vegas about ten years ago with my husband. We were absolutely dumbstruck by the vast array of buffet options. These were not just buffets; they were MEGA-buffets, which were overwhelming. Yet, ten years later my husband still prods us to go to all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets to take advantage of these low-cost plentiful food choices.

There is a poignant scene in the book Unbroken when the freed POW soldiers, after months of starvation, are being airdropped tons and tons of food. Even for them, at a certain point, they had to say “Enough! It’s too much. “

Scarcity vs. abundance: this kind of polarized thinking affects many of our lives. It is one of the reasons we become black-and-white thinkers regarding food. We’re either in restriction and diet mode or we’re bingeing and indulging to our hearts’ delight. The most common thing I have heard throughout my fourteen years as a Health Coach is how my clients cannot find this middle ground, or to control their “dimmer switch”.

As an Eating Psychology Coach, I observe eating events, such as buffets, with an analytical eye. My observations indicate that people approach buffets in three distinct ways:


1. The grab-a-plate and go-to-town type 


This individual embodies the typical, “our eyes are bigger than our stomachs” cliché by sampling a little of everything in the line with little pause for judicious and careful choices. This individual is delighted at the array of food, the fact that it’s “all you can eat” for x amount of dollars and wants to take advantage of every last bite. Food is extremely important to the grab-a plate type and there is a constant fear of scarcity, even amid huge buffets (after all, they might run out of Beef Wellington!).


2. The casually-walk-down the-line, observe-the-food-categories and offerings, and then carefully-decide-in-advance-what-to-eat type


This individual is analytical in nature. He or she likes to plan in advance and make sensible, balanced and methodical choices when it comes to food. You might find this person adding just a few choice items onto his or her plate and eating slowing, happily enjoying every bite. This person loves food, but is not controlled by it and can easily choose the foods they find most delightful and nourishing. He or she often orders the made-to-order omelette, and doesn’t mind the wait.


3. The “I’m on a diet” buffet type


This type agonizes before heading to a buffet (and might not go at all). He or she wants everything on that damned line, but uses sheer will to fight the Belgian waffle demons. You’ll find this person clenching her plate to begin the line, peering under lids only to be sad and disgusted when confronted with hollandaise sauce or some other heavy, rich food. He or she will sadly but boldly walk over to the salad bar and fruit section of the buffet, scantly fill a plate and then return to the waiter to request steamed salmon along with a diet coke.


Other lesser-known but significant buffet types:

1. The “I won’t touch the ladle that every other person in line has just touched” type.


This person may wear gloves or keep “wet wipes” in his or her bag.


2. The “Let’s just go for dessert first” type




3. The “Cranky eye-rolling, hate-waiting-in-line-for-this delicious-food” type


This person begrudgingly goes to a buffet but will bristle at the wait for that annoying person in front of him who can’t seem to get the correct pepper-to-lettuce ratio on the plate, but nevertheless keeps trying valiantly. When this cranky individual finally reaches the salad, he notices the tongs are sticky and this further irritates him (or her).


4. The “I-never-learned-to-share” type


This person will push and shove anyone out of his or her way to get that last Danish or final piece of chocolate cake, leaving even 6-year olds crying in his or her wake.

As for me? I’m probably a hybrid but more closely lean towards #1. Buffets in general stress me out and bring me decision anxiety. Stress with food = no bueno. So, I’ll usually try to opt out whenever possible. Of course, being a vegetarian also adds an additional challenge to the situation – but I do enjoy watching other people at buffets. Next time you’re at a buffet, let me know which types you notice. Any types I missed?

Do tell!

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