Work parties, family gatherings, religious holidays, community get-togethers, weddings — most of us have periodic social events that make it difficult to keep to our normal routines.
Many of those events revolve around food. The ways in which we’ve traditionally been taught to think about nutrition and fitness goals, it may seem like your social events and your goals are completely at odds. And history may have convinced you that’s true.
Let’s talk about something you already know: Diet rules don’t work at social events.
If you’re getting together with family and friends, you often don’t have a lot of control over the food that’s being served. You could be at a dinner party where everyone is getting the same thing. Or it’s a hangout that only has appetizers. If you have rigid diet rules, you’re at the mercy of hoping to find some food that fits those wacky rules.
Since you likely won’t find food at a party that happens to fit your rigid diet rules, you have a few options:
- Don’t eat anything.
- Assume they won’t have anything you can eat, and eat beforehand.
- Assume they won’t have anything you can eat, and bring Tupperware.
- Stop going to social events.
- “Blow your diet” and eat all the things because you’re going to start again next week.
All of the those options suck.
If your nutrition plan prohibits you from hanging out with people you care about, that’s a terrible plan. It’s unsustainable and unhealthy. If you have to bring Tupperware, people will think you are a weirdo… and they’ll be right.
What most people do is eat the stuff and “break the rules.” Then, once they’ve broken the rules and decided to start over in January, they feel like they “might as well enjoy it” so they stuff themselves with all of the foods that will be off-limits in the New Year.
And, it isn’t just starting over in January—most people do this all year.
They white knuckle restrictive diet rules as long as they can, then snap, then tell themselves that they will “start again on Monday.” Thus, they create a repeated cycle of restricting in silly ways, and then over-eating to compensate.
Fortunately, there are other options: Skills and guidelines.
A Better Way: Skills, Guidelines, and Social Events
Eating skills are really effective and completely under-appreciated.
They’re things like eating slowly and noticing when you are full. Or noticing the difference between flavor enjoyment and fullness. Eating skills are about learning to check in with your body, and having the presence of mind to stop eating when you are full.
If you’ve been dieting for a long time, that means you’ve been ignoring those hunger and fullness skills both ways—not only have you likely ignored hunger when “following the rules,” but you’ve also ignored fullness when you “fell off the wagon.” If you’ve been ignoring them for a while, it’s going to take sustained practice to get better at them.
In the meantime, enter guidelines…
Guidelines are simple rules-of-thumb you can use as training wheels for learning skills.
Guideline #1: Eat One Plate
A really great guideline for social events could be to make one good sized plate, eat what’s on the plate, and stop. It works really well because it doesn’t matter what food they serve—whatever they have, you make a plate of that.
It also works really well since you’ll always eat less total food, but also feel more satisfied, when you eat one good sized plate.
When you make your plate, it has to be enough. We’re way better off when we can see one good plate and know that we ate it. Making a small plate that isn’t enough, and going back to get seconds and thirds makes it impossible to have any sense of how much you really ate.
If you get that one good plate, it makes it way easier to eat slowly and notice that you are actually full at the end of that plate. It gives you some extra structure to have a better idea of what you ate when check in with your body.
Guideline #2: Get Some Protein and Veggies
Another guideline is to just make sure to get some protein and vegetables, whenever possible.
It would be rad if you could get 1/4 of your plate protein and 1/2 your plate vegetables, but that isn’t always available. When you can though, it’s great. Most restaurants you can get that. Most backyard barbecues you can do that. Even Thanksgiving you can usually do that.
But if you can’t no big deal—it’s a guideline, not a rule. If you get protein, but there are no vegetables, awesome. If there are vegetables, but not very many, no problem. It’s a just something to shoot for, if you can.
Be Flexible with Your Eating at Social Events (and other times, too!)
The cool thing about a guideline is that it isn’t a rule.
A diet rule has to be followed at all times, or you are bad and evil and totally failed at everything. Which, of course, people then take to mean that they have to stuff their faces and start again next week. That’s the diet rule cycle of failure.
Guidelines, on the other hand, are inherently flexible. A “one good plate” guideline gives you the flexibility to put what you want on that plate. It also allows flexibility in that that plate might be bigger on Thanksgiving and smaller at a barbecue. It’s context dependent. Guidelines should be different at different times.
Other examples of guidelines being flexible:
- You’ll split a bottle of wine with your spouse on a date night, but you don’t do that every night.
- Or, you might eat slowly and notice when you are full while out at dinner with all of your friends, but you might scarf down food as fast as you can if you all have kids with you and you have to chase a toddler around a restaurant.
Instead of a rigid diet rule like “don’t have alcohol,” you actually take a minute and notice when it’s special. Instead of taking a guideline like “eating slowly” and turning it into a rule, you notice the times when it isn’t at all practical.
Skills and guidelines aren’t rules. They’re tools to make your life better. Sometimes they make sense and help. Other times they don’t at all. Many times it’s somewhere in the middle.
Being Social at Social Events
As silly as it sounds, it’s helpful to remember that the point of social events is to be social, to connect with people, and that’s probably doubly true around the holidays.
That actually works two different ways: On one hand, we recognize that connecting with people is more about the conversations we have and how we’re interested in their lives than it is about the quantity of food eaten. On the other hand, we recognize that we naturally bond over eating together, and food does play a role in connection.
By using skills and guidelines, we can have that bond over eating shared food.
We can connect with people over meals, without it being about “blowing our diet” and pigging out on way more food than feels good. Instead of being on or off our diet rules, we can eat a totally normal and healthy amount of food. Possibly more importantly, we can have a healthy relationship to food.
We can eat in ways that fit all of our commitments and values in life, from our fitness goals to connecting with people we care about.
Having some guidelines gives us some structure so that we can think about food less. Having some guidelines allows us to trust our own bodies more. Connecting with people we care about is as healthy and important as all of our fitness goals. If we eat a normal and healthy amount of food, we get to have it all.
Don’t Starve Yourself Before or After Social Events
A really popular diet plan is to skip a meal before a social event. Please. Don’t. Do. That.
The goal is to always eat in a normal and healthy way. Skipping a meal is not normal. Nor is it normal and healthy—after having skipped a meal—to go stuff your face at a social event. Which is what people do, because “they skipped a meal and they earned it!” Don’t set up really weird cycles of restricting and overeating.
Eat a normal meal, at a normal time. Then, at the social event, it’s normal for that meal to be a little more. That’s it. That’s ok. Nothing else to it.
Really, really don’t do this with alcohol. Obviously, if you skip eating before hitting the drinking on New Years Eve, you’re going to get wasted and probably yak. Having your friend hold your hair back over the toilet is one way to connect… just not a good one.
Another version of this trope is to do a really hard workout before a social meal. Really, please, that’s not what workouts are for.
Workouts are for developing strength, motor control, and flexibility. Workouts are not for “earning your calories.” It’s such a depressing context for working out, and the complete opposite of everything GMB stands for. That isn’t physical autonomy.
Do your normal workouts, at your normal times. Then, at the social event, eat a meal that’s a little more than normal.
After social events, you don’t have to do penance. You aren’t a bad person because you ate something “bad.” Stop moralizing your food, and don’t starve yourself or do extra workouts the day after. The day after you ate a little more than you should… eat like you normally eat. Eat healthy amounts at normal times.
The only way to get off of the diet rollercoaster of too much and too little is to stop eating too little. The punishment, the eating too little, it’s always followed by way overeating later. And thus the cycle continues.
If you ate 20% more at the social event than you normally would, that actually doesn’t matter. Most people will snack more than that when they’re bored at work on a Tuesday afternoon. Let the social event be a little more, and let that be fine.
Then, go back to normal, healthy eating, with guidelines like eating vegetables, eating slowly, noticing when full, not snacking when stressed out, and so on.
All About Alcohol
Alcohol is another one of those things where if we have any, we’ve been told, we’ve “totally blown our diet!” Again, because we’ve “blown it” we eat more, we drink more, we fall into that same trap of thinking we’ll start again in the new year.
And sure, many people reading this don’t drink; if that’s you then just skip to the conclusion below.
Alcohol is different from food in that it’s always extra. Like chocolate cake is extra. But who would want to live life without ever having chocolate cake? The same way that your grandma’s birthday is a good time to have birthday cake, if you’re ever going to do tequila shots, New Years Eve is likely the time. If you have a tradition of drinking a champagne toast on New Years, do it.
The trick with alcohol, because it is extra, is just to check in with your personal values, and the situation you are in.
Lots of us might have a few events that we want to have a few drinks at. But I also know people who have their company work party, their spouse’s company work party, multiple community events, and multiple family get togethers, which could literally mean drinking five nights per week from now until January first.
If that’s the case, you might want to take a look at your calendar and choose which nights you really want to enjoy those drinks. Once you’ve chosen how often you want to drink during this time of year, you could take a look at how much you want to have those nights. After choosing, you can use that plan to pace yourself.
- You could switch off every other drink between alcohol and tonic water. You could expect to want more than you’ve planned, and stop on plan anyway.
- You can check in with yourself in the moment and see if you actually want another drink, or if you are just feeling nervous in an unfamiliar social situation.
There are numerous guidelines and skills you could apply, the trick is just to do some amount of planning ahead of time.
Lastly, like everything mentioned in this post, check in with the situation. It actually is normal to drink a little more on New Years Eve than it is on any other random Tuesday. Plan for what makes sense to you, the places you will be, who you are with, and what your personal values are. Notice how that changes from event to event.
Say Goodbye to “Starting After New Years”
Rigid diet rules don’t work at social events. Don’t turn social events into “free days” or “I blew my diet days”—that just creates a cycle of eating too little and then eating too much.
Guidelines and skills are about making your life better. They’re tools. They should add a level of flexibility that’s really workable in social events.
Here are two strategies you can use to get through the holidays without getting off track:
- Guideline: Make one good sized plate. Stop after one plate.
- Skill: Eat slowly and notice when you get full. Stop when full.
Social events require flexibility. Make decisions based on the situation you are in, not “the perfect situation.” Take stock of where you are at, who you are with, and what matters to you. Don’t skip the birthday cake on your grandma’s hundredth birthday.
Lastly, remember that being social is about connecting with people. Food is part of that, but not all of that. Use these skills and guidelines, enjoy being with people, and enjoy the food.
Armed with these strategies, you can say goodbye to the “starting after New Years” (or “starting on Monday”) hamster wheel.
Build Skills that Last
Eating Skills is a coaching experience that will help you build sustainable skills around how you eat, giving you a healthy, non-dogmatic approach to food.