Let’s face it. Eating mindfully is very hard to do in a social setting. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s possible.
Does this mean you shouldn’t even try to pay attention when you’re eating with family and friends? Or that you’re doomed to a life of eating alone?
No, and no.
As with most things, it’s possible to find middle ground. Since it’s not always easy to identify, though, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve picked up over the years.
Tip 1: Set an intention
Before you even go to the event, think about what you want to get out of it. After all, if it’s a social event, generally the focus is on being social.
If you’ll be with family and friends, maybe your goal is to enjoy the company, or visit with that one person you don’t see very often.
If it’s a work or networking event, maybe your goal is to make some new connections.
Or if you do want to focus mostly on the food, tell yourself that. And give yourself permission to really experience and enjoy it.
Tip 2: Don’t go into it starving
Getting too hungry never works out well. It makes you irritable… you can’t focus on what’s going on because you’re thinking about food… and by the time you eat, you inhale anything in sight.
At the same time, avoiding this at social events can be tricky because you don’t have control over when food will be available. You might have a general idea, but things might run late. For instance, on Thanksgiving when it takes the turkey longer to cook than expected.
If you think you’ll get too hungry, one option is to eat a small snack shortly before you leave. This is a good choice if you’re going to an event hosted by people who are habitually late.
Alternately, bring a snack with you. This might feel strange, and you may choose to excuse yourself to go outside or to another room to eat it. But if anyone asks, you can tell them I suggested it. And odds are that even if it’s a little awkward, you’ll feel better than if you get faint from hunger or starting snapping at people who try to start a conversation.
Tip 3: Don’t feel obligated to try everything
This mostly applies to buffets or potlucks. When you go to these events, it’s very tempting to try everything simply because it’s there.
A better approach is to evaluate your choices first, and then only get the things you know you like or want to try. This is another reason it helps not to be too hungry – you’ll be better able to consider your options without grabbing the first thing in sight.
Tip 4: Start with small amounts
Again, at a buffet, take small portions to start. You can almost always go back for more if you really like something and are hungry for it. (And if you can’t, then at least you got some of it in the beginning.)
If you’re at a sit-down restaurant, you can try the “speed bump” approach. Split your meal in two and start with just half.
Tip 5: Focus on the first bite or two
You probably won’t be able to pay full attention to the food – but you can pay some attention. Take a few seconds to notice how the food looks and smells. This helps remind you to slow down and appreciate the food.
Then for the first bite or two, focus on how it tastes… what kind of texture it has… if it’s warm or cool. Again, this can be for a few seconds, but even that will help keep you more connected to your hunger and fullness cues. Or if you even like what you’re eating.
Tip 6: Pause to reassess
Before you go back for another helping, or continue to the second half of your plate, stop and see how hungry you still are. And if you want a little more, consider if you want the same food… or if you’re ready for something different.
And if you’re not still hungry, go to the next tip.
Tip 7: Give your hands something to do
Sometimes we eat on autopilot just because it feels awkward to be sitting and doing nothing while others are still eating. This is when I usually reach for my glass – and hang onto it.
Keeping your hands busy, even if it’s just from holding something, might act as a signal to yourself that you’re done eating. It doesn’t matter what’s in the glass (or mug) or if you even drink it. Simply having it as an anchoring point can help.
Tip 8: Don’t play the comparison game
This might be one of the hardest things to do. Don’t compare what you’re eating with what other people are eating. Because this can backfire in a couple of ways.
One, you might see that other people are eating more and feel like you should eat as much as them, even if you’re not hungry.
Or, you might find that you’re eating more than others and feel self-conscious and then stop… which could leave you feeling unpleasantly hungry and resentful and deprived.
Basically, nothing good comes out of comparing what you eat, so try to avoid it altogether.
In short, eating socially and being mindful at the same time is tough. It takes practice. So don’t get discouraged if you’re not there yet, or if it takes a while. I hope the tips help, and if you have any others that you’ve learned that you can share, I’d be happy to hear them.