There are so many potlucks in Philadelphia, and I'm worried about gaining weight as a result. What are some strategies for eating at potluck meals without outgrowing all my Shabbat clothes?
The best strategy for eating at a potluck is the same as at any other meal: Eat until you're satisfied, but not stuffed. Moderation is more difficult when you're faced with six different kinds of pasta and three different trays of brownies. Just remember, even though all these foods are in front of you, you don't have to try them all.
One specific strategy is to go through the potluck line and take a helping of each of the four of five dishes that look best to you. If you want seconds, you can either take more of the tried-and-true dishes or branch out to one or two other things that look appealing. Another approach is to take teeny tiny bits of lots of different items and taste them just to know what suits your palette. Then get a dinner-sized helping of whatever you've decided is what you really want.
Most importantly, at a potluck (or any other meal where you can be reasonably sure that the person who cooked isn't watching studiously to make sure you are eating – and enjoying – everything), if something doesn't taste "worth" eating to you, don't eat it. Don't finish the dry pasta just because it's on your plate or force yourself to down the brownie that tastes like cardboard. It's easy to sneak away during a potluck to surreptitiously clear your plate into the trash, or just leave it somewhere and go back through the line with a new one.
I want to raise two other issues that came through in your letter: Comfort with your body is one, and fully enjoying Shabbat is another. I totally understand where you're coming from in wanting to maintain your weight. I hope, though, that this is coming from wanting to be healthy and feel good, rather than unreasonable expectations about your body. You shouldn't eat half a pan of brownies for dessert every day during the week, it's true. Six kinds of pasta per meal do not a balanced diet make. But Shabbat is different. Shabbat is a time to celebrate, to eat good food, to drink wine with friends, to let loose. There's a Jewish legend that we gain an extra soul during Shabbat. Some people I know (all excellent cooks) extend that to say that perhaps we gain an extra stomach as well. What else could account for endless hours spent indulging in glorious Shabbat meals without getting full?
The next time you go to a potluck, don't feel like you have to try everything, but also don't deprive yourself of fully enjoying the meal. Being part of a community that provides regular and plentiful Shabbat meals is a gift that we in Philadelphia are lucky to have, and it would be a shame for you to miss out on this very special communal experience because of calorie counting.