Now that social restrictions have completely dropped away, people are out and about, reconnecting with one another – and that often involves eating. You may have been brought a tiny bit of relief during the various stages of lockdown because perhaps it mean you didn’t have to face this one difficult thing. Now that everything has opened up again, how are you feeling about eating in social situations?

Does it stress you out? Do you get anxious before you’re even in it? What about during – and how about after? There are a few threads to this kind of situation – let’s see if I can unpick it.

Which of these social eating situations matches your behaviour?

  • Do you find yourself burrowing in the buffet, unable to modulate how much you’re eating – being swept away by all the taste experiences on offer?
  • Or do you just get too carried away in deep conversation, flirting, or being amusing to notice what you’re eating until you realise you’re too full?
  • Perhaps you worry about what others will think of you as they witness you eating?
  • Or perhaps you barely eat a thing in public – either because you’re too anxious, or you withhold because you’re ashamed of your size and believe people your size shouldn’t enjoy food, or shouldn’t even eat!
  • Or maybe you sneak food into the kitchen/bathroom, because it’s too stressful to eat in front of others?
  • Do you pick off other people’s plates instead of (or as well as) getting your own?

Some tips on eating in social situations:

Preparation

It’s really helpful to prepare yourself. You will most likely know you’ll be in this situation in advance: whether it’s a wedding, a cruise, a family birthday party or having friends around for dinner. So take advantage of the advance warning and prepare yourself.

What’s your purpose?

Something that is overlooked a lot, is engaging with our purpose for doing something. You’re not going there for the food – well, not only for the food! So ask yourself why you are participating in this event, and ask yourself why that matters to you: dig deep.

  • Is it to connect with people who matter to you? (who and why do they matter to you?)
  • Is it to celebrate someone you know? (why is that important to you?)
  • Is it to network, as a marketing support for your business?
  • Is it to honour an occasion? (what is remarkable about this occasion – why does it matter to mark it?)
  • Is it to have fun?
  • Perhaps to meet new people and widen your social circle…

Once you know your purpose, keep reminding yourself of why you’re going, every time you think of the event, and definitely whenever any anxiety around it appears.

Emotional preparation: these are things to remind yourself of

  • I am allowed to eat (as much as I like and whatever I like)
  • I’m allowed to actually enjoy food & eating
  • Reaffirm to yourself some of the things you know are true about you, that have nothing to do with your appearance. Go for qualities you possess (as opposed to statements of fact, like female, aged 47, accountant!).  Are you loving, thoughtful, talented, creative, generous, kind, giving, quick-witted, accepting, understanding, empathetic? Do you have a sense of humour? Do you contribute to the lives of those around you?
  • Think back to past similar events. There may have been times when certain people have commented about your eating, or your body size: either in a ‘positive’ or in a ‘negative’ way (both can be triggers). How can you prepare for something coming up? I suggest either get support support from a friend, therapist or trusted loved one, or think creatively about how you could respond if a similar situation were to reoccur. Sometimes being light really can help diffuse the situation and at the same time send a clear message to the other person. Sometimes, direct and firm is best. I firmly believe in practising in your mind’s eye. Brain imagining studies have shown that the same areas in the brain light up whether you’re imagining something, or actually doing it. So practising what you’ll say/do in your mind, is building new neural pathways.
  • Repeat after me: IT IS ONLY MY BUSINESS WHAT I PUT IN MY MOUTH. IT IS ONLY MY BUSINESS WHAT SIZE/ WEIGHT I AM.

Physical preparation

  • DO NOT STARVE YOURSELF BEFORE HAND! This will only set you up for overeating. Don’t intentionally skip meals because you want to save your calories for later. Also, I suggest you also don’t do the opposite and overeat before you go, so you won’t be tempted to eat. This doesn’t feel satisfying at all.
  • EXPECT TO OVEREAT, especially if it’s a celebration. People with easy access to food regularly eat more than they might need in social situations, especially celebrations. The harm comes when you try to correct for this by missing meals, restricting the next day etc – this tends to lead to binge eating or continuous grazing. Just aim to eat again when you’re hungry. It CAN be as simple as that.

At the event itself

  • BREATHE. Breathing right into your belly before you get there, and then periodically during the event, will help to relax you, and keep you connected to yourself.
  • CHECK IN. Just for a few seconds, check in with yourself. Ask yourself if you’re hungry. If you are, how hungry? Try to get a sense of how much, and what kind of food would satisfy your hunger.
  • SURVEY. If it’s a buffet, become a picky eater. Survey what’s on offer in its entirety before you start to choose what to eat. Remind yourself, you can always come back for more if you want to. There are no limits, and you don’t need to stop eating at any particular point either. It’s entirely your choice.
  • SIT. If you can sit, that would help for you to be more mindful while you’re eating.
  • BREATHE. You can’t do enough of this. It’s always helpful to breathe – in mindful eating, we call this a mini-meditation. It’s just a few seconds to breathe, notice how you’re feeling in your body; any thoughts; any emotions – simply observing and acknowledging them without judgement.
  • SET LIMITS. Remember your preparation around things others have said about your body or eating? Put that preparation into practice if the need arises by setting limits with people about what is and isn’t ok to discuss. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t arise though – sometimes having done this kind of preparation, and being unapologetic about what you’re eating or how you look, gives the message to others without having to say a word.
  • ENJOY! Periodically check in with yourself and ask if you’re still enjoying the taste of the food. If you’re not… you have the choice to stop! This will leave more room for other things on the buffet table that you may still want to try.
  • REMIND yourself of your purpose for being there. Every time you notice yourself getting panicky about the food, breathe and reconnect with your purpose for being there.

After the event

  • BE KIND TO YOURSELF. However you ate – whether you managed to stay mindful, slipped into mindless eating, or had a full-blown binge, it’s really important not to beat yourself up. Let go of any upset towards yourself. You cannot hate yourself into sustainable change.
  • MAKE SENSE of what happened. Reflect on what you did to support yourself, or what happened and how you reacted, that led to overeating or binge eating. What can you learn from this experience, and what could you repeat or do differently next time?

I hope this was helpful – do let me know if I haven’t covered something you see happens for you in social eating situations. I’d love to help if I can.

Ready to heal your relationship with food?