As someone who follows a diet many would consider “restricted”, I know how difficult it can be to share meals with others. Being a professional chef, I tend to want to be the one doing the cooking, and when I am able to prepare at least some of the food being served, then I don’t have as much of a problem. However, in my work as a personal chef, I have many conversations with clients about their struggles when going to visit friends or family.
The hard part comes when you visit in-laws or friends houses. They have lovingly prepared food for you that, unfortunately, you can’t eat. Do you suck it up, eat the food, and suffer the consequences? Or if your dietary restrictions are more serious, it’s really unwise to eat food that isn’t within your diet. What do you do? Do you explain your restrictions politely at the dinner table? Can you “call ahead” to explain so no one is caught off guard?
Initially, you may think, well yeah, I’ll just tell them. But when considering all the nuances of relationships, I can attest to having been in quite a few situations where I didn’t feel comfortable explaining why I couldn’t eat certain foods. Sometimes it’s the way people react, they roll their eyes, they laugh, and they can’t fathom why you won’t eat ice cream. Other times, you have already explained your diet (multiple times in fact) but no one seems to remember what you eat. You start to feel silly or frustrated having to repeat yourself. Additionally, it’s hard to tell someone you can’t eat a dish they put a lot of care into- you certainly don’t want to be hurting anyone’s feelings!
My question is, why do we end up feeling rude or uncomfortable because we’re doing our best to be healthy? How can we maintain our own standards but not hurt anyone’s feelings?
To start, in our culture, with media, famous restaurants, fast food, etc., there is much less emphasis on diets that exclude certain foods. As a result, our friends, our family, don’t necessarily have as much exposure to the different diets you or I may follow. It just isn’t around as much. This isn’t about lack of ‘education’; it’s about a lack of quality information being available to the public. I do think this is slowly changing, which is a great thing to see. I hope we continue to see better, and more accurate, information circulating about why we shouldn’t eat certain foods.
Now, what do we do about feeling rude or hurting someone’s feelings?
The important thing I have found, in explaining the way I eat, is to highlight the fact that this is about my efforts to feel well and be healthy. At the same time, it is important not to preach about foods being bad or make it seem like you are judging others for the way they eat. This is about you getting well, and if your speaking to a family member or friend, chances are they will be understanding of you saying you need to do this to help your body.
I’m still learning myself here! I do still feel awkward sometimes. But the more you get used to opening up and speaking from the heart, the easier it becomes. I do suggest speaking with family or friends before you go visit. Explain that you’re working to find a way of eating that helps you feel healthy. If you’re comfortable, give them a brief background on what’s going on.
For me, I usually explain that I have had digestive and other issues practically my whole life, and I have finally figured out a way of eating that has resolved all these problems. Ask if you can bring a dish to help in the meal efforts, or help with some cooking.
I think it’s important not to convey an expectation that every dish comply with your way of eating. But have a conversation with them about how much you want to be a part of the meal, or the occasion, and how you’d like to help in any way you can. I think your honesty and willingness to help will make a big difference.
The more you find yourself able to have these important conversations, the easier it will be to navigate those holiday parties or family gatherings. I’m not saying it is easy, but being prepared can really make a difference.