Aug. 13. 2021
Mindful Eating
McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

Do you ever feel like its more difficult to maintain the balance you’d like in social eating situations?

Food is such a big part of our social lives, cultures, traditions, and celebrations.

​But it can also feel overwhelming or frustrating to navigate these situations when you’re learning how to find the right balance of nourishment and enjoyment foods. 

If you constantly feel as if you’re getting “off track” by making choices that aren’t aligned with what balance feels like to you, it can feel really frustrating and bring up some negative thoughts about yourself, which is not what we want you to experience.

Read on to discover how you can feel more at peace with food in social eating situations. 

Why It Feels Challenging to Maintain Balance in Social Eating Situations 

There are a few common reasons that social eating feels more challenging to navigate, and becoming aware of them will support you in learning how to feel more at ease with food in social situations. 

1. The Environment is Different From You’re Regular Routine

When you’re in social situations, whether that’s at a friend’s home for a girl’s night, at a family BBQ, or at a wedding, the physical environment is set up quite differently than your space at home and this can have a large influence on your food choices without you even realizing it. 

For example, in many of these situations, there is often food that’s put out on display for grazing, such as bowls of chips or a charcuterie board. This could simply cause you to want certain foods that you normally wouldn’t say were the most satisfying to you. 

Additionally, you’re also engaging and interacting with more people in these situations, whereas maybe at home it’s just you alone, with your partner, or with your family.

When you’re at a social event, there are often many more people you’re chatting with and maybe even different activities happening. This can make it more challenging for you to remember to check in with your hunger and fullness levels or to truly experience what you’re eating. 

2. You Don’t Have Control of the Food Options 

One of the most common reasons why many people feel social situations are challenging to navigate is that they don’t have control over the food that’s going to be there.

Between not knowing what may be served, seeing so many enjoyment foods that they want, and lacking nourishing options, it’s easy to feel frustrated and that it’s impossible to maintain balance.  

3. Peer Pressure 

You’ve likely experienced this before.

You’ve chosen what you’d like to eat or not eat on a particular day and someone makes a comment about it.

“You’re eating a salad, common, live a little.” 

Or maybe, “You’re going to eat that sugary cake? I’m Keto and would never eat that.” 

Peer pressure is so common at social events and we hear from many clients who feel the need to eat in the same way as others or feel pressured by family and friends who are commenting on what they are or are not eating. Unfortunately, you’re likely to experience this at some point in your journey.

6 Social Eating Tips to Find the Right Balance 

Luckily, we’re here to help!

Navigating social eating doesn’t have to be as challenging as it may currently feel. With a few simple social eating tips that you can keep top of mind, it will feel much easier for you to practice balance with your food choices.   

1. Set a Clear Intention  

In addition to being mindful, you can also create a clear intention of what you’d like to experience at the event or gathering. 

Are you there to catch up with old friends you haven’t seen in a while? To celebrate the wedding of two of your family members? To enjoy the delicious food at your favorite restaurant? 

Or maybe you want to be able to enjoy food at an event without restriction or guilt so you can focus on socializing and not get caught up in food rules? 

These are all intentions where physical nourishment isn’t the primary priority – and that’s OK! Sometimes enjoyment is the priority instead. If that’s the case, allow yourself to mindfully enjoy the atmosphere and what you’re there to experience, rather than dwelling on food rules or the “shoulds” that you can think of.

When you’re no longer at the social event and back into your routines, nourishment can become more of a priority again. This is the balance we teach within the Method that allows you to ebb and flow between nourishment and enjoyment throughout the many phases of your life. 

2. Build Balanced Meals and Snacks

One of the easiest ways to maintain balance in social eating situations is to remember the foundations of balanced eating habits. One of the core practices we teach our clients is how to create a balanced meal or snack.

This allows them to get the nourishment they need while also enjoying the foods they love, no matter where they are!  

We do this using our Foundational Five system, and if you’re not familiar with this system yet, you can download our free Balanced Eating Guide that maps out exactly what to include on your plate for balance. 

Keeping this simple system in mind during social occasions will make it so much less stressful for you. You’ll be able to look at any buffet, charcuterie board, or snack table and be able to easily visualize what you can add to your plate to create a balanced meal. 

Will your meals from the buffet look like the meals you make at home, probably not, but again – that’s OK!

The Foundational Five framework gives you the guidance you need to know that you’re doing your best in any given situation, so you can approach any social situation with confidence. 

3. Bring a Nourishing Option to Share

With that being said, knowing that most social situations have an abundance of enjoyment foods but tend to lack nourishing foods, is there something you could bring to share that is both nourishing and enjoyable?

This could be a delicious Broccoli Salad With Ranch Dressing for a summer BBQ, a Plant-Based Green Bean Casserole for a holiday party, or a homemade dip for a balanced snack at girl’s night or birthday party. 

4. Stay Mindful 

It can be easy to get caught up in the moment at social events, especially with that change of environment and peer pressure we just talked about.

One strategy we share with our Mindful Nutrition Method™  members to help them tackle this is to be mindful in social situations.

What exactly do we mean by mindful? Well, let’s say your aunt is insisting you eat her brownies, or maybe you’re walking by a dessert table with all kinds of sweets and treats. And let’s say you really don’t like brownies, or sweets aren’t really your thing, but in the past, you almost always would just grab a handful of something off of the sweets table because it was simply there, or say yes to the brownies just because she insisted. 

Does this sound familiar to anyone? These are examples of mindless eating, which is a major contributor to that lack of balance you’ve felt in social situations in the past.   

This time, bring mindfulness into play. If you know brownies aren’t your jam, check-in with yourself. Do you actually want the brownie? If not, simply say no thank you. If you know you’re more of a savory person rather than sweet, keep on walking by that table and spend your time elsewhere where it’s really enjoyable for you.

Having mindfulness in these moments can help you to make decisions that feel truly good and right to you, which will help you to prevent that sense of stress, guilt, or overwhelm that comes as a result of imbalanced eating in social eating situations. 

5.  Practice Balance the Day of your Social Event

Now there will also be situations where you’re not able to bring a nourishing option, or you simply may not want to. Such as if you’re going out to eat at a restaurant or to your parents’ house for your mom’s famous trifle.

In those situations, you can focus on practicing balance not only at the social event but also throughout the entire day. If you know you’re going to be experiencing food items that are primarily on the enjoyment end of the Balance Spectrum, you can prioritize some nourishing food items at other points during the day.

Now we’re not talking about fasting the day of, or “making up for” the enjoyment food afterward, because we know those aren’t examples of balanced eating habits.

One day of eating won’t make or break your balance or your health. 

We’re simply talking about finding a balance between nourishment and enjoyment rather than succumbing to all-or-nothing thinking. 

If you’re going out for a birthday dinner and know the options are all enjoyment foods, you can focus on having a nutrient-dense smoothie and a veggie-packed bowl for lunch so your body has what it needs to feel great.

But don’t let this cause stress – remember that this isn’t black and white, it’s about big-picture thinking. It’s about finding overall balance. 

6. Prepare to Communicate Your Boundaries

Peer pressure is so common at social events and we hear from many clients who feel the need to eat in the same way as others or feel pressured by family and friends who are commenting on what they are or are not eating. Unfortunately, you’re likely to experience this at some point in your journey.

Having a couple of phrases in mind that you can use can be helpful for setting your boundaries and ending the conversation. 

  • “That looks so delicious! I’m just not really in the mood for it right now, but thank you for offering.”
  • “I’m actually really enjoying [fill in the blank] right now, but maybe I’ll try some of that later.” 
  • “I, unfortunately, don’t feel very good when I eat [fill in the blank], so I’m choosing not to eat it today.”
  • “I actually really love [fill in the bank] — I find it so satisfying.” 
  • “This is actually what my body is needing/wanting right now, so I’m listening to that.”

Feeling More At Ease With Social Eating

As with anything, learning how to feel at ease with food during social eating situations takes time and practice. It’s unlikely that you’ll feel confident overnight. Keep these tips in mind and reflect on how you feel after social events to understand what you’d like to repeat or do differently at the next one, you’ll be able to slowly but surely shift how you feel in these situations.