Getting too full during a great meal

Via email from a reader, who I shall call "R":

While I was in San Francisco I dined at Bouchon and Chez Panisse. I had high expectations of both. Unfortunately I was unable to really enjoy my experiences because I ate too much! How do you prepare yourself for this kind of eating and traveling? How do you pace yourself? Also, I made the mistake of ordering a special of the day that looked good, tasted good for one bite, and became an entire food that I will now avoid because of the experience – it was just too rich, too flavorful, too much! And this was at Bouchon where the servings are not typical American-style biggie sizes.

Any thoughts? What are your experiences?

I've definitely had that same problem, most memorably in Las Vegas. My husband and I ate lunch at Mesa Grill, and while it was delicious, it was quite filling. That evening we had reservations at Bouchon and ended up disappointed with our dinner, in large part because we were too stuffed to really enjoy eating it.

In general, I try to avoid eating much during the day if I know I'll be going out to a big dinner someplace special, especially if it's the kind of place where I'll likely order the tasting menu and be eating for four hours. Also, I try to be cognizant of how rich of a dish I'm ordering. In Austria, because most of the main courses were meaty and heavy with cream, I opted for salad starters every evening. That way I wouldn't be full before the main arrived.

Another trick is exercise. I run or go to the gym nearly every day, and I find that gives me a larger appetite — and an increased gastronomic capacity — than when I don't work out. If I can't fit in a jog (because of travel or something), I usually try to do a lot of walking around before a big meal, so I'm good and hungry before going in.

I also try to pay close attention to how full I'm getting, so that if I'm starting to fill up soon (say, on an appetizer, or early into a tasting menu), I back off a bit. I don't finish every course, especially if I'm not that crazy about it.

Most importantly, I don't try to become a member of the clean plate club anymore. It took me years to break the habit from childhood of eating all the food I'd been served. But I realized that in a restaurant, I hadn't had any input into the quantity of food I'd been given, and therefore was not obligated to finish it. Being too full is the easiest way to ruin a good dinner, and though I'm not always successful, I work to avoid it.

Does anyone else have thoughts about this and suggestions for R?

16 thoughts on “Getting too full during a great meal”

  1. When I go out in the US for dinner, I’ll sometimes order two appetizers; one for my first course, and the other for my second course. Or with friends, we’ll order a lot of appetizers, and split some entrees. I often find appetizers and salads fresher and more appealing than heavy entrees. Most restaurants don’t have a problem with that, in my experience. (Then you’ll have room for that all-important dessert too!)
    Portions are indeed getting enormous, but I frequently hear a lot of people complain…”We were still hungry after we left”. Unfortunately sometimes ‘good value/big portions’ often gets mistaken for a good restaurant experience.

  2. One thing that has worked well for us is to include a meal in a day of sight-seeing (if we’re on vacation), and making it a point to walk as many places as possible. This works especially well in NYC, where interesting restaurants are nestled in unexpected places and off-the-beaten path blocks that require exploring. I think connecting food with place is just another way of making eating memorable.

  3. My husband I had the same problem when we were in San Francisco and Napa on our honeymoon. There was just so much good stuff to eat! By the end of the trip we figured out that our stomachs were best prepared for a big dinner if we only had one meal earlier that day. A late breakfast or early lunch with protein sustained us both until our nightly reservation.

  4. If I’ve got serious eating on the calendar, I switch over to loose clothes and train for it. I just up my calories a little bit each day for a couple of weeks prior to the big night.I first tried this for an anniversary dinner at No. 9 Park out here in Boston. My wife still makes fun of me for it, but I did nine courses with wine, and finished her leftovers. Still one of the best dinners ever—not because of the gluttony factor, but because I got to dessert and was actually eager for it. (And yes, it did then take me a couple of months to lose the extra ten pounds.)

  5. I think drinking has something to do with it too (if you drink while you eat dinner). Beer tends to make me full, whereas wine makes me somehow hungrier.

  6. Most places, especially during a tasting menu, or any case where there are lots of smaller courses, will let you “pause” if you’re filling up. I’ve actually had waitpersons ask if we’d like to slow down when they noticed we were leaving more food on our plates.
    I’ll second the notes about exercise and throw in a caution against just plain fasting or eating *too* little during the day — my wife once got so hungry before dinner that she “crashed” and by the time our meal arrived she had a headache and no longer had an appetite.

  7. ditto to most of the above, and I want to echo what Josh says about eating at least *something* during the day. If I’m too incredibly starving, I’ll gorge myself on bread or a big appetitzer or something and then be too full for the rest of the meal. Also, I’ll eat too quickly and not fully enjoy the experience.
    Another problem with being completely famished? The first drink with dinner tends to hit you quite a bit harder!!

  8. When I had 27 courses at Alinea, there was a moment when I was getting full and wanted to pause to digest. Very politely, they suggested that if I stopped eating, my body would decide “yes, that’s enough, time to feel full” and that would be the end of that. So I pushed through, and was able to enjoy every course but the last. So for scientific reasons implied but not known (by me), I suggest that you don’t take breaks.

  9. Thank you so very much for posting this… my husband and I love to eat out, and are constantly trying to pace ourselves. When the weather’s warm, we spend a lot of time in the pool- which really works up our appetites!

  10. I had the same problem at Bouchon when I went with my husband last spring, although we were very happy not to finish any of our courses since all we wanted was the experience of tasting. Walking, or any physical activity (esp. the swimming), helps work up an appetite, but I try to subvert dieting tips to my advantage. For example, sugar is one of the most powerful appetite stimulants out there–a small hard candy a hour or two before dinner would probably do the trick in a pinch.

  11. Thanks, Meg, for posting this to your web site. I really appreciate what everyone has posted in comments. What a luxurious problem to have, but fine dining is one of the greatest pleasures my life. One of the things I did in Napa was wine tasting before going to Bouchon, which in hindsight I would not recommend. Also, after such rich food all I want to do is eat toast, so doing to fine meals back-to-back is also a bad idea for me.

  12. A couple of thoughts on this:
    1 – Sometimes, a multi-course meal works better at lunch than at dinner. So quite often, when we travel, we partake of a splendid, lazy 3-hour lunch, before we’ve filled ourselves up with noshing throughout the day.
    We take the rest of the day as it comes, and generally go for something light (sushi or large salad) for dinner. It gives us a chance to try the places we really want to, without succumbing to food coma and “drag” the next morning.
    2 – I think your point about going in hungry is well-taken; however, it’s amazing to me how many diners I see polish off a bread basket before even placing their order. Bread service is the plague.
    3 – Caffeine will also put a dent in your appetite. Avoid coffee for at least two hours before dinner.
    And I think the most important point of all is one you already made: don’t finish a course “just because”. If you loved it, but don’t want to overdo it, just let your waitron know so, if you’re worried about the kitchen (that latter part may just be my “fragile sense of guilt”, as our waiter at wd-50 pointed out.)

  13. It’s not always possible to do, but more and more we try to eat a main meal at midday and eat a very light dinner (or sometimes no dinner, if the midday meal was heavy). Eating earlier in the day gives us a chance to exercise it down to a reasonable fullness.
    When I can’t avoid eating a big meal at dinner time, I still have a small snack in the afternoon. That way, I don’t feel I need to clean my plate at dinner.
    It seems to be me that for a few years, restaurant portions had gotten smaller — in some cases, painfully small — but that in the past couple of years portion size has been inching up again. My perception, or reality?

  14. I’m out all the time. All the time.
    Meg’s suggestions are great, especially the exercise and the saving yourself for the evening meal. One tip I have is to put yourself, mentally, out in front of your experience about 15 minutes.
    What does that mean? It takes about 15 minutes for the food I eat to settle in. So if I am eating continuously, course after course, by the time I am finished I’m about 15 minutes beyond where I need to be. Kind of like when you are running and you do a cool down at the end. When you know you are getting down to the last course or two, start taking less or even skipping the course. Did this last week, we had Stephan Pyles making a meal for our table. He paced it great and portions were small. Because of the pace I was able to see my tipping point coming and slow down the intake, taking smaller bites so I could enjoy all the courses, even if just a portion of them. Key is to pace yourself, know where you are going, and do the “cool down” as you approach the last course or two.
    Cheers!

  15. Don’t rush. I remember one fabulous New Year’s Eve dinner with 8 delicious courses, but since we started at 7 pm and ended it a quarter to midnight, we did enjoy every minute of it. Of course this is somewhat dependent on the restaurant’s concept – not every restaurant is willing to take it slow.

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