A group of us were out for a co-worker’s birthday at one of those “healthier choice” buffet restaurants that’s named after a vegetable, but has enough soups, pastas, breads and cakes to feed a small African nation. You know this type of place – a human trough where it’s socially acceptable to stretch your fist-sized stomach into the girth of a weather balloon.
Lunch began in the salad line, where I refrained from any concoctions doused with mayo or dressing, because everyone knows that’s diet death. Potato salad is not a salad; it’s a side dish. There’s nothing green in it, unless it’s gone bad. And most salads already soaked in dressing have more calories than a bucket of chicken.
So I assembled the healthiest salad I could. Mostly spinach, because it’s chock full of calcium, while iceberg lettuce is as nutritious as air. I added carrots, peppers, radishes, celery, cucumbers, garbanzo beans and a teaspoon of sunflower seeds. I didn’t blink an eye at the croutons. And I try to stay away from cheese, ever since my sister dubbed it “the fat man’s candy.”
I even put my dressing in a separate cup and did the old Weight Watcher’s fork trick. I dip my fork in my dressing, then in my salad, so every bite has flavor, but most of the dressing remains unused.
At the end of lunch, I felt satisfied. You might even say I was full. And had I stopped there, I could have made Jenny Craig proud. But my entire table got up to get more food, and I followed suit. (I know. I know. I can still hear Gram say, “If your friends all jumped off the Empire State Building, would you jump too?” Touché, Grandma! Touché.)
Unfortunately, I did go. Heck, there wasn’t a patron in the place who didn’t eat four lunches. There was a hot food area with meatballs in marinara sauce, four-cheese Alfredo, macaroni and cheese. But like a healthy girl (and Dionne Warwick), I walked on by, because salad buffets are not known for their fine Italian cuisine.
There were creamy potato soups and chowders … and a baked potato bar with ice cream scoops of butter, cheese and real bacon. And I did the “Just say no” thing. I did – until I came face-to-face with my nemesis, also known as the bread line.
There I was, facing giant hunks of freshly baked rolls, buttermilk cornbread and blueberry cherry nut muffins. And what the heck is “cheesy garlic focaccia?” Isn’t that pizza? They don’t call it “pizza,” because then it would seem like you’re eating a second meal, which you ARE! But like everyone else in the lunch crowd, I pretended not to know this and took a few pieces of that, too.
And there were desserts … apple cobbler and chocolate lava cake … Caribbean key lime muffins and brownie bites. They call them “bites” so you can pop them in your mouth and forget about eating them. But here’s a news flash, self: If you have five or six, it’s no longer a “bite.” You’ve eaten three brownies!
By the time I left this healthy “salad” joint, I’d packed away enough food for all 19 kids in the Duggar family and a few that haven’t been conceived yet. I was physically and emotionally miserable and cursing my lack of willpower. And yoga pants.
This is when I vowed to never again patronize an all-you-can-eat establishment. Some people don’t like buffets because the food looks half dried out or because they want to be served if they’re paying good money to eat out. Others hate the idea of hundreds of people marching by, spreading their TB all over the macaroni salad.
But the biggest reason I vow to never again set foot in a buffet is that it’s the one place on earth where I lose all sense of judgment and reason. When my stomach says it’s full, my idiot brain snarkily tells it it’s a big fat liar.
I’m pretty sure the buffet gene is related to that other gene I got from my ancestors: the “I love a good deal” gene. Because when I “pay one price” for anything … whether it’s a buffet or a season pass to a theme park, I have to prove to myself that it was worth it. The more I eat and the more times I visit the park, the more of a value I know I’m getting. I can’t leave a buffet until I’ve consumed enough peel-and-eat shrimp to bring the price down to a dollar a pound.
And my “deal” includes items that I don’t usually order, like dessert. It’s all part of the bargain. Buffets compel me to eat my money’s worth – to have it ALL, because I paid for it.
If I ever wanted to kill myself so my family could have the insurance money, I’d go to a buffet. MetLife would question an overdose or study the skid marks of a car that suddenly veered off the highway for no apparent reason. But who’d think twice about someone who scarfed down plates of fried chicken, cheesy scalloped potatoes, buttery corn casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy and big hunks of black forest cake? I’d eat at a country buffet every night. It’s like an Emerald City of lard.
And Chinese buffets are no different with their egg rolls and fried rice. I’m not buying that argument that it’s healthier, because there aren’t many fat Chinese people. I’ve seen plenty of fat Chinese people. They’re the ones gorging themselves on the sweet and sour shrimp, while their thin brothers and sisters are busting their butts putting out more vats of spare ribs.
So hear this world: From this day forward, I vow to be a single serving woman. Honestly, I’m happy with whatever comes on my plate in a restaurant. I never turn to a waitress and order a few more meals, because I ate veal scallopini, but the shrimp scampi also looked good.
I’m a compulsive eater. For the better part of the last 35 years, I’ve struggled with being overweight. I’m not one of those people who loves food and savors every bite. I don’t “Mmm, mmm, mmm” my way through a plate of linguini. I eat quickly, sometimes standing up, and practically without tasting anything on my plate.
Food for me has always been a way to fill myself when I feel empty … an emptiness that no pint of Ben and Jerry’s could ever reach. I’m perfectly capable of saying no to devil’s food anything when I’m happy and on top of the world. But when my world feels like it’s crumbling, I want to cram in Twix Bars by the truckload.
I’m a person who needs a sit-down meal with a finite portion ― a visual to know when I’m done. During my biggest diet successes, I’ve asked for a “to go” container with my meal and set aside half my food for a later date. If I have it all in front of me, even if I divide it in half, I’ll keep picking at the reserve long after I’m full, until I’m looking at one lone spaghetti noodle.
All-you-can-eat dining is not my friend. I shall no longer partake in this convention of gluttony known as the buffet. When the patrons of a restaurant are all wearing stretchy pants, it’s never a good sign.
Ironically, the advertising for one of the more popular chains boasts, “good times are always on the menu.”
I guess one less person will be skipping to her open heart surgery, singing Zippity Doo Dah.
Read more from Parri Sontag on her blog, Her Royal Thighness