Sunday, January 10, 2021

Take as much as you want but eat as much as you take

The last time I grabbed a container of yogurt and a cup of coffee at a complimentary breakfast buffet was slightly more than a year ago at The Inn on Third in St. Petersburg, Florida. We were in town for a wedding along with more than 100 other people when such gatherings were still the norm. Because it was winter, we extended our stay for a few days beyond the wedding because, well, winters in St. Petersburg are a tad warmer than those in Boston, Massachusetts. Although it seems a fading memory now, the innkeepers on Third Street went out of their way to make the stay enjoyable.

Perhaps anticipating the day when travel including hotel stays featuring complimentary breakfast buffets again becomes as normal for many of us as it was in pre-pandemic times, a reader we're calling "Robin," because that's her name, emailed to ask whether it was OK to bring food from a hotel's complimentary breakfast back to your room.

"The price of the breakfast is built into the room cost," she wrote, but she wondered if it was acceptable to consume whatever you selected any place other than the area where the breakfast is set up. Beyond that, she also asked, "Can you take extra for lunch, snack or meal later in the day?"

In some instances, the answer to Robin's question seems clear. When we traveled with our oldest grandson to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame a few years ago, we stayed at a small motor lodge on the way into town that set up its breakfast choices on a window ledge in the tiny registration office. There was no choice but to take what you wanted and return to your room or to one of the picnic tables in the motor lodge's backyard. Other times, it might not be so clear what the hotel's rules are about where the consumables are consumed.

I recall one buffet several years ago featured a sign that read: "Take as much as you want but eat as much as you take." That resulted in a chuckle, but it was still unclear if they meant to eat it right there and then or if it didn't matter as long as it was eaten and not wasted.

As Robin notes in her email to me, you can reasonably assume that the hotel is fine with and expects guests to take food back to their rooms if they provide disposable containers to carry the food. If you pack up a piece of fruit and a biscuit and end up eating it a bit after the breakfast hour that hardly seems to violate the spirit of the buffet. I'm fairly certain an apple doesn't care when it's eaten and neither should the hotel staff.

The right thing, however, is for the managers of the establishment to make clear what the rules are. If there is a sign asking guests to refrain from taking food or drink back to their rooms, they should. If no such sign is posted, then it seems fair to assume it's OK to do so. Some people simply want to enjoy  their first cup of coffee of the day alone. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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