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3 Survival Tips for Eating at Potlucks and Buffets

Updated: Jan 15, 2022

buffet, food, intuitive eating, mindfulness, mindful eating

Unlimited food + lots of people can be a very intimidating and uncomfortable experience.

If you get nervous eating in front of other people or always feel like your relationship with food changes at the sight of a buffet, you're not alone. Let's chat about what you can do to prepare for and find comfort in these settings!

I hear time and time again that people will go to parties and not eat at all because they felt overwhelmed with the choices or they were distracted by the social element and simply forgot to get food.

Or maybe you're someone who feels awkward and anxious in big social settings and so food becomes your comfort and friend in times of stress. In this case you might end up eating beyond fullness or eating large quantities of a certain food that you can't seem to break free from.

If you can relate to any of these scenarios, you're not alone and there are ways to work with this. Listed below are my three favorite ways of making parties, potlucks, and buffets enjoyable again. : )


1. Have a plan.

One of the appeals of intuitive eating is that you get to listen to your body and go with the flow of what it needs from day to day. So why would I be encouraging you to make a plan?

Well. Sometimes certain environments require a little more forethought and intention than others. In my experience buffets, potlucks, parties, and any setting in which there is an unlimited amount of food sitting out for hours calls for some planning.

  1. Check in with your body before you arrive to the event. What is your current hunger status? What is your current emotional state?

  2. Using this information as a guide, envision in your mind’s eye what an appealing dining experience would look like for you at this gathering. If you could have anything you wanted right now, would you want a full meal? A dessert? A snack? Something sweet, salty, or perhaps thirst quenching?

  3. Reflect on past experiences. At other events similar to this one, what were some of the main challenges you faced? What were some of the ways you handled those challenges? Do you want to do things similarly or differently if you encounter those challenges again? Go ahead and brainstorm ideas you can implement.

  4. Create a little summary of all these thoughts and ideas into a loose plan for how you will navigate the food scene at this gathering.

For example:

Right now I’m feeling pretty hungry. This event will take place at dinner time so I’m going to want to make sure I eat enough food that feels like a complete meal. Right now what sounds really amazing to me is fried chicken, mac and cheese, and something sweet. Since I don’t know what they’ll be serving I’ll keep an eye out for some meat, something fried or salty, something soft and cheesy, and maybe some fruit or dessert. In the past I found it helpful to survey the scene when I first arrived and get my bearings. I also know that I prefer eating sitting down so if food is not served at tables with chairs, I will find a place to sit while I eat.”

The more events you go to, the more data you’re going to be able to gather. Sometimes exposure to scary and overwhelming things is one of the best ways to make them less scary and overwhelming.


2. Make conscious decisions.

So you’ve got a plan. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself. But then you walk in the door and you’re bombarded with stimuli. People saying hello, a dance floor, loud music, dogs, children, you name it.

Ahhhhh!!! How the heck are you supposed to remember everything you previously “planned” before arriving?

Great question. In fact, I’d say it’s common for people to show up at a party and have an idea of their hunger level beforehand.

But then mindless hands begin reaching for the snack table as Aunt Susie makes really boring small talk or you want to make a quick run from the dance floor and the dessert table seems like the perfect escape route.

Or maybe you arrived hungry, but get swept up in conversation and forget to eat altogether.

I’m going to let you in on a BIG SECRET. 👇

I. Love. Bathrooms.

🌟I think bathrooms are the greatest gifts for someone trying to implement intuitive eating at big events.

Because here’s the thing. There are two qualities inherent in bathrooms:

The are guaranteed to exist.

They are guaranteed to be private.

Everywhere you go is going to have a bathroom. This is about as predictable and reliable a plan as you can get. Additionally, whether you have the whole room to yourself or you get a stall, you’re going to get privacy.

👉Privacy = the ability to check in and prepare to re-enter a crowd consciously.

So. When to go to the bathroom?


Go to the bathroom 5-10 mins after first arriving somewhere.

Use this as a time to regroup. Remind yourself of the plan you created before you walked in the door and give yourself a pep talk.

Take some deep breaths.

Perhaps you were able to survey the crowd and food options as you mingled. This could be a good time to update your plan with modifications or to come up with some more specific intentions since you have a better idea of what you’re working with.

Go to the bathroom sometime mid-event.

If the gathering has a formal eating period, then you may excuse yourself mid-meal just to do a check in and see how your hunger and fullness are doing. If this is more of a graze for hours type of event, then use your judgement and go sometime after you have eaten some things but aren’t certain you’re done.

The isolation of a bathroom provides you with the quiet you need in order to truly check in and listen to your body. Assessing your hunger and fullness levels in a crowd of people is very difficult. Check in with your body and see how you are feeling - in addition to hunger/fullness, this is a good time to check in with your emotional state as well.

Go to the bathroom at any other time you feel like you need to regroup, reassess, get a break, or… pee.


3. Accept the imperfect.

We can keep this one short and sweet.

You're not always going to leave a party feeling satisfied.

Sometimes you will eat beyond fullness because the food was just that good; sometimes you will leave hungry because Aunt Susie’s jello just wasn’t cutting it; sometimes you will wish you had more veggies or more cake and it just didn’t happen.

Have grace with yourself.

👉And if you need to stop and pick up food on the way home from the event so that you feel more satisfied, then by all means, do it.


Ta-da! The crowd/buffet/party survival guide!

Depending on your comfort level with discussing your relationship with food, the final note I’ll add is that enlisting support for these types of situations is always helpful.

I personally love vocalizing my intentions and hopes with my husband before entering an event like this. We each have our own versions of anxiety that can arise in crowds so it feels natural for us to check in with and lean on each other. (also we’re both therapists so we discuss our emotions a lot 🤷‍♀️).

Alright, let me know how your next event goes! I would truly love to hear about what you tried or what did/didn't help!

If you're curious about how to cultivate more mindfulness during mealtimes and increase your ability to be present with food as you're eating it, download my Mindful Eating Checklist!


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