Recently I took my kids to Tennessee, to visit Dollywood. Maybe a strange vacation choice for someone living in California, but I’m sort of a Dolly Parton fan – my most favorite movie is 9 to 5. Side note: if you haven’t been to Dollywood and you’ve got kids, you should. Imagine a more manageable Disneyland, nestled in lush greenery.
As I always do on vacation, I eat too much and I eat badly. That’s just vacation: some allowances need to be made, perhaps even more so in the land of biscuits. The volume of food at the hotel breakfast buffet was dazzling, and confusing. Trays of pastries and bagels and muffins featured slices of cheesecake. The fruit table included a large bowl of maraschino cherries. If something could be made sweeter, it was. If something could be fried, buttered and slathered, it was. And it was delicious.
What struck me though wasn’t the differences in food from California to Tennessee, but an interaction we had at Denny’s, on one of the mornings we couldn’t rouse ourselves for the free cheesecake at the hotel. My sister wanted a single pancake along with her oatmeal and fried egg. This item was on the menu, one pancake for $2.49. When she ordered it though, the waiter said helpfully: “Oh you don’t want that, you want the two pancakes. It’s cheaper. Two pancakes is just $2.00.” My sister nodded. After all, this made more sense: more for less. “I’ll take two then.” He wrote this down, laughing a little, “I’ve worked here three years and I’ve never hit the one pancake button on the register. Guess these guys aren’t mathematicians.”
On the surface this may seem the logical choice. Especially if you’re very hungry or want to split it with someone. But she wasn’t. She knew she wanted just one. This is how we are so often lured into buying more food than we want or need. The buy-one get-one free offers, the super-sized this, the mega pack that. It’s cheaper. It’s a better value. But is it? If you didn’t want it, how much value is gained when you eat that pancake you didn’t want? We talked about this as she ate her pancake. “I’ll just eat this one,” she said. As we talked though, she absentmindedly began picking at the second pancake. Realizing this, she stopped. “I don’t know why I’m eating this. I’m full. It’s just here.” There’s the problem. Though she
technically saved .49 cents and gained a pancake, she could have (for .49 cents) left that pancake back in the kitchen and felt better about breakfast.
A number of things happened during and after this making of this pancake choice: First, it seemed foolish to get less for more money, despite knowing we wanted less and might regret the extra pancake. Second, once the pancake was on the table absentminded eating came into play (it’s there, and suddenly we were eating it without thinking about whether we wanted it.) Third, the ingrained aversion many of us have to wasting food caused her to eat more than she wanted. We failed at every step. We ordered an item we didn’t want, we absentmindedly ate it, and then (faced with the remainder of the pancake) finished it off, thereby becoming the garbage can – something we talk about in Waist vs. Waste in Buddha’s Diet. Maybe if we were about to go on a long hike and wouldn’t eat until dinner, it might make some sense to eat that pancake. But we weren’t. And chances are, when you are presented choices like these, you aren’t either. You don’t have to order two when you want one. You don’t have to order an entrée when you only have room for an appetizer. You don’t have to eat the bread on the table set down before you even know what you want to eat.
When you’re out at a restaurant, think about what you want to eat, really give it some thought. Maybe ask how big the plate is if you’re not sure. Remember that if it’s in front of you, you’ll probably eat it. Remember that portion sizes these days are often borderline absurd. And when something seems like a good deal on a menu, remind yourself that what may be a good deal money-wise, may not be such a good deal for your health and your weight. Sometimes it’s okay to be the one asking for the one pancake button.