A Survival Guide For Social Eating When You Have Dietary Restrictions

As we plan to sit around the dinner table this week with friends, family, and lots of food, I thought it was time to address this tricky topic.

A while back one of the lovely NMDL readers suggested I do a post on the social aspects of eating when one eats in a manner not typical.  For me, some of this revolves around dealing with other people and their issues, and some of it is pure logistics!

Since I eat in a way that is quite different from most people, I am often reminded of just how worked up people can get about how other people choose to eat.

Please note, I am not addressing eating disorders here, but rather adults making decisions about how to eat.  I’ve had many experiences where people have judged me about the way I eat.  When I was a much larger person, others would shoot me nasty looks as I ordered a dessert.  Since I’ve been a healthy weight for my frame, people still criticize how I eat.  Often, it seems as though others think my personal choices are a negative judgment of their choices, though they are not.  These are a few concepts I use in my life to help me deal with the complications of eating differently from most people around me.

Don’t let other people try to shame or bully you into eating a certain way. You are the only one who knows what it’s like to live in your body.  We should be able to make our own decisions about our own bodies.  This covers a lot of things, including food.  I hope everyone makes healthy and informed choices, and listens to their body.  Sometimes another person will have a genuine concern about your health.  If it is someone who cares about you, listen to the concern, and address it respectfully (if you need help, take the opportunity to receive it).  Eating disorders are real, but not all atypical ways of eating are disordered.  Make an honest, informed, responsible assessment of how you choose to eat, and do your best to make it work.

Be willing to be somewhat flexible. While I prefer to eat raw, as long as the options are vegan and gluten free (my essentials for health), I can manage in a social situation.  Figure out where you are willing to be flexible and be prepared for this when you eat with others.

Come up with a dish or two that most other people love, regardless of their dietary specifics. I struggle with this, as I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable preparing food for others.  Some people are great cooks, but it’s not my gift.  Every once in while though, I have a hit.  People love my slaw, so when I’m invited to someone’s home I bring it.  That also guarantees there will be at least one thing there I can eat.

Be ready to discuss/answer questions about how you eat, in a way that doesn’t provoke an argument (unless you want to have the argument).  Why aren’t you eating, or why did you bring your own food?  I have a lot of food sensitivities.  Why don’t you eat meat/dairy?  I feel healthier when I don’t.  Why do you think you have a problem with gluten?  Diarrhea.  Okay, that last one is usually my last resort when someone is clearly judging me and seems to think I’m an idiot incapable of making my own choices.  Generally my response is more polite.

When eating out, know what’s available in your area, and plan ahead. Use a smartphone app or the internet to locate restaurants that will accommodate your needs (this is great if you go out of town, too).  Others often think I can just go to any restaurant and order a salad, but food I can get at most places is just not as nutritious as what I make at home.  Plus I have to ask so many questions to be sure of staying gluten free, etc, it’s a pain.  If you can find a place that meets the needs of everyone in your group, that would be ideal.  There really aren’t many places around me that are agreeable to most people I would eat out with, so sometimes I have to sneak in some of my own food.  Sometimes I make sure to eat something that covers my needs before going out, so I can just order whatever is available without feeling like I don’t have enough.

But what about eating at home when no one else eats like you do? I really have no completely satisfactory solution here.  I’m in a situation where no one in my house has the same schedule or eats the same food.  It can be a hassle, but I’m committed to eating in a way that I enjoy and that makes me feel good.  I try to have my family prepare our food together, and share what we can.  That way it’s not completely on me to make all the different meals, and we still have some family time.  Now that my son is old enough to use the stove, this is somewhat easier.

Are you dealing with these issues too?  How?

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13 Responses to “A Survival Guide For Social Eating When You Have Dietary Restrictions”
  1. Renee says:

    I live in a small, southern town where eating healthy isn’t the norm. Fried chicken, sweetened tea and collards cooked in grease is a staple here. It makes things hard because I don’t choose to do things the way everyone else does. I do my best to eat organic fruits and veggies (when they are available, which is often slim) and when I eat meat, I choose to eat free range, hormone and antibiotic free chicken along with wild caught in season fish. Which, you would think wouldn’t be a big deal. A lot of people do that now a days right? Wrong, I get the strangest looks from people. Or snide remarks about how I choose to live and eat. You should see what happens when I refuse styrofoam containers. So I definitely know what it feels like to be put in awkward social situations. I just wish people would realize that just because you choose to do things differently doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you or that you think you are better than them. I don’t, to each his own. I just choose to live a life that I know makes me feel like I am doing the right thing for me and the environment. I don’t ask people to follow, but I do except respect.

  2. tranquil says:

    When I am at social functions, eating things I don’t normally eat, I rely on a supplement of digestive enzymes that help allow one to process any consciously (or hidden) consumed gluten, dairy, fats, animal proteins, or even hard to digest plant proteins… Visit your local natural food store or vitamin shop and ask about digestive enzymes. They can smooth over the physiological affects of eating outside your dietary comfort zone. They are also a great aid to ease digestion when you’ve overeaten. Visit this page from my favorite brand called Enzymedica about enzyme facts. http://www.enzymedica.com/enzyme_facts.php

  3. Sam says:

    Great topic. I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly 30 years–yet still find my family fails to incorporate my way of eating into their dinner plans, even when they’ve specifically invited me over for a meal. At Txsgiving, happily, there’s generally enough to pick from (my family always makes a side of cooked greens and of brown rice, in addition to other starchy dishes). But this year I’ve added to my usual vegetarianism severe problems with digestion that significantly influence what I can/can’t way–so I’m going to do exactly what you suggested: eat ahead of time. That way I won’t be desperately searching for something safe to eat (or be reduced to bringing \special food\ for myself to Txgiving; not that that’s bad, but it makes it a focal point/topic of discussion, which I don’t want)–yet can enjoy any \safe\ side dishes I find (including the one I’ll bring).

    All that said (and it was a lot!), it’s interesting how other people’s food is such a fascination to us all (myself included). I hope you have a delicious Txgiving!

  4. Elle says:

    Thanks for sharing!! I love to bring along dishes that I know I can eat. For example, this Thanksgiving I know I can depend on my parents to make sure the Turkey is gluten-free- that’s simple. But since I know stuffing will be tricky- I’m bringing my own! No one will care if there is more food on the table.

    When eating out I have my dietary restrictions printed on a business card that I can hand to the waiter when I make my order (so I don’t have to sound obnoxious in front of my friends). Works like a charm!

  5. Lilly says:

    This is such an important topic. First of all, I was on an elimination diet for a very long time, and had a very hard time with it. At one point I was only eating organic, farm-raised chicken and plain rice. It made my social life very difficult. I had to always cook my food and bring it with me, and cook extra portions and put them in the fridge/freezer. Not only I was depressed, but I also had to deal with tons of questions all the time. That was the very beginning of my healthy eating journey, so I am thankful for it, even if it was difficult. I was forced to change my diet and learn a lot about food. Now that I am back on a “regular” diet, I am still a very conscious eater. I do most of the things you already mentioned. Questions and comments do not bother me anymore, and I have become very comfortable with them. Whenever people are interested in knowing why I eat a certain way, I give them examples of how healthy eating has fixed some of my health problems. I always bring snacks with me, such as fruit, nuts, a homemade sandwich, etc. Sometimes I will just skip a meal if my only choice in the area is fast food. Who cares, I am not going to die for skipping one meal!

  6. poo says:

    It needs to be stated, again, that many of these posts on eating veer towards the extreme. Please get a nutrition expert to write these posts.

    I also share this article, 13 signs that you are overthinking mealtime:

    The Meatless Mondays had a couple posts with women with hearty appetites after many of us complained, but have since then dwindled to green smoothie after green smoothie. I like my green smoothies too, but as the article states, having zero variety in your diet is not healthy.

  7. Rebecca Bailey says:

    Great comments!

    @Elle, I love the business card idea.

  8. Emma B says:

    Thanks for dealing with this topic Rebecca!
    I struggle with this. I am a bad vegetarian (some fish), with vegan tendencies since dairy and eggs aggravate my digestion. My family and friends seem to hope it will pass, so I’ve started bringing my own food along too.

    I also wanted to add that keeping like-minded company is a nice break once in a while. I recently attended a potluck dinner where half the guests were either vegetarian or vegan. It was an amazing meal!

  9. Naomi says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful post! Between my combination of lifestyle choices and chronic illnesses I have a very restricted diet, and I continually struggle in social situations around food. While I’ve developed skills to ease the food journey (always bring something I can eat for myself or offer to make something for the group, research every restaurant before going to it so that I can prepare myself for what I can and cannot eat…), I still am working on making smart choices in group settings that keep me healthy and full. Your article reminds me to keep it simple when giving explanations, to not get hostile or embarrassed when deeply questioned, and to remember that everyone (not just myself) brings a lifetime of food experiences to the table that effect how we behave around it.

  10. lms says:

    how unfortunate that food causes so much stress for some people. i’m not ashamed to say i love to eat, and that i believe food is to be thankful for and to be shared. this post really takes away from the joy of thanksgiving and the joy of food.

  11. Rebecca Bailey says:

    @lms, I’m glad you enjoy food – and everyone should! We just don’t all enjoy the same kinds of food. I do enjoy food very much, but unfortunately many of the traditional Thanksgiving foods will make me sick, and that’s no good. Fortunately, though, food itself does not cause stress for me – though sometimes other people’s reactions to the way I need to eat does get stressful. Thus the guide, because I know I’m not the only one.

  12. lms says:

    my point is, the fact that you need a guide, and even thought about blogging about it, is taking it too far. and missing the point of thanksgiving! i was vegetarian for years, and was on a restricted diet for a bit for medical issues, so i understand eating different foods. i think food becomes a problem when we make it a problem.

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