Buffets can teach more than you realize about what consumers think

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

There is little as boring at this time of year as people talking at holiday parties about how guilty they feel about eating food at said holiday parties. These people often follow up by discussing their fitness goals for the new year. Yawn.

Don't get me wrong: I am intimately acquainted with the guilt around delicious holiday treats. It's taken me a good chunk of adulthood to realize nobody's paying attention to how much anyone else eats at a party — only if someone becomes heavily intoxicated and starts dancing. Helpful life tip: Don't do this at an office Christmas shindig.

All of that said, new research shows us about the guilt involved in all-you-can-eat buffets, has some ramifications.

The study was designed so that one group of participants received an $8 buffet and a free beverage, while another paid $4. It followed up with 139 participants at an AYCE Italian restaurant in New York. The study ran for two weeks during weekday lunch buffet hours.

(To pause for a moment, I know a lot of people in healthcare eat a sandwich or candy bar in a 15-minute break during their workday rather than head to a lunch buffet. I also know people who would throw themselves out a car rather than go to a AYCE buffet, but stay with me here.)

The group was about split evenly between men and women, with an average age of 44 years old.

What they found was the diners who paid $4 for their buffet felt worse than those who paid $8 for the buffet, even when they ate the same amount. The lower-priced group rated themselves as more uncomfortable and said they ate more than they should have. They gave higher ratings to overeating, feelings of guilt and physical discomfort than the diners who paid $8 for the buffet.

Obviously, seniors in nursing homes have their own specific issues related to food. But what the study tells us is that charging a low price for pay-as-you-go restaurant or bistro meals, or for a buffet, influences people to set a lower expectation level about how much they should consume. Higher-end options can make consumers feel better. Plus, diners who paid a higher price for the buffet rated the pizza as 11% tastier. It's worth asking if pizza is ever actually not tasty, but the point is we like food more when we pay for it.

You can read the full study in BMC Nutrition, and also click to read Jim Berklan's column this week reflecting on obesity rates in nursing homes.

In the meantime, while visiting friends and family or attending parties, here's my advice: Slap a price tag sticker on the chocolate desserts or hor d'oeuvres, and ask yourself if you'd pay to eat it. If it's literally worth it, indulge, and feel free to take money from other people looking at the dessert table. You may be evicted from the party, but you will have put science into action. And you'll feel great.

Elizabeth Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's. Follow her @TigerELN.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.