How do I get out of social food situations?
November 15, 2009 8:56 AM   Subscribe

How can I avoid social meals gracefully when I have an eating disorder?

I have an eating disorder (not eating enough food and not eating a wide range of foods) which really prevents me from engaging in social meals. I like socializing and I'm really outgoing, but when food is involved I feel self-conscious because I know I can't or won't eat much or any of it. When invited out for drinks I go almost every time, but for meals I make up an excuse or simply avoid the person for a short period.

I feel bad because I can't enjoy something which is normal for most people, but I feel worse because I can never give a straight answer to people who invite me for meals. I'm sure they think I hate them, and would like a good way of excusing myself from meals/food situations. I really want to be able to say, "I can't do this, so don't invite me, but also please don't pry into my problem." How can I say this in a way that is clear but polite?

I'm female, late 20s, and I live with some of the people who ask me out for meals. I've never been diagnosed with a problem, and am not seeing anybody about it. However, I am making good but slow progress and think I will be capable of dealing with these situations in a few years. I don't need help in that way.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
How can I say this in a way that is clear but polite?

"How about we go do X later instead?"
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:57 AM on November 15, 2009

Only do activities that take place not anywhere around mealtimes. And don't spend an entire day or a long period of a day with someone, because then there will have to be a meal.

It is incredibly awkward to avoid eating with people in this society, though, and as a general rule I don't think you can get out of doing so all the time without awkwardness.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:05 AM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, my rule of thumb about turning people down is:

- for people I love and care about (including close friends), just give them the unvarnished truth. They will appreciate my honesty.

- for people I am not so close to, just a polite "can't make it" without further explanation is enough. Generally they will respect my privacy -- if not then they are not worth keeping in touch with.
posted by randomstriker at 9:06 AM on November 15, 2009

I don't have an eating disorder, but I usually just don't eat much. Only a few people have ever asked about it or pressured me, and people just get used to the fact that I'm not going to eat very much. Polite excuses I use (which in my case are usually true):

1. I ate earlier
2. I'm on medication that affects my appetite
3. My stomach's upset today
4. I don't have much of an appetite
5. I'm not a big fan of [food being served] (of course, this might lead to them offering endless lists of other options)
6. I have plans to eat later and don't want to spoil my appetite
posted by desjardins at 9:16 AM on November 15, 2009 [8 favorites]

I think randomstriker has it. You give as much detail as you're comfortable giving to your friends and family who will understand and respect your wishes. For others, you decline invitations that seem problematic to you. If a group of work friends asks you to join them for dinner and a movie, tell them you'd love to join them but your schedule only allows for the movie. If you're concerned about people thinking you don't like them, you can still turn down meal invitations and later invite them to do something that's more in your comfort zone. Most people won't assume the worst unless it seems like you never want to spend time with them at all.
posted by contrariwise at 9:22 AM on November 15, 2009

"I have some rather peculiar dietary issues that make it hard to eat in a setting where I don't have total control over the food options."

(If asked to elaborate: "I'm sorry, it's private and I would rather not discuss it further.")
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:52 AM on November 15, 2009 [7 favorites]

I once had someone say to me that she had a bit of a phobia of eating in public and would prefer to just come out for a drink after the meal.

I thought it was unusual and a bit of a shame for her, but no big deal. Lots of people have phobias about different things, so I think talking about 'food phobias' makes it something people can relate to a little more easily than 'eating disorder', which can freak people out a bit.
posted by penguin pie at 9:59 AM on November 15, 2009

Many people are in the same boat...the having a "normal" meal is problematic boat. I have food intolerance and I have several friends with even more severe problems (celiacs, 1% of the population, really can only eat at special restaurants). I think the normal technique is that we go to the meal, but say we ate beforehand (usually we do) and that we are only going to have a drink and a snack.

Only a few people in my life have given me a problem about it. I usually just say I have a delicate stomach and I ate my main meal at home and well..people who pry are just rude.

They percentage of people who have an issue with food (eating disorder, food allergy, stomach people who chose to not eat typical food like vegans) is pretty huge these days and for those of us in that percentage a birthday party at the Cheesecake Factory or dinner at a well-meaning friend's house can mean simply not eating.

The "friend's house" dinner is a particularly sticky situation given that turning down homemade food can be considered insulting. I often say that I'm under doctor's orders to eat a special diet, but I'd love to come hang out and have a drink.
posted by melissam at 10:03 AM on November 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another way to pass it off if you're ok with it is telling people you simply don't want to spend the money to go out to eat so you ate at home beforehand. I'm very cheap so there have been many times when I've been invited to dine with friends and I eat beforehand at home and go there just for the chance to see them all and end up drinking water the whole time. Everyone has come to know that I'm cheap and no one seems to think anything of it. I feel like especially in this economy no one will even bat an eye at that explanation.
posted by kthxbi at 10:20 AM on November 15, 2009

I once had someone say to me that she had a bit of a phobia of eating in public and would prefer to just come out for a drink after the meal.

This may be the most succinct explanation for getting across what you want to get across.

If you blame it on dietary preferences or tolerances, well-meaning hostess/foodies like me will warmly encourage you to feel welcomed and gladly accommodate anything you can think to throw out there as an "impossible" combination. If you blame finances, someone'll likely be happy to toss you a few bucks so that you can participate.
posted by desuetude at 10:26 AM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Be polite but firm, as others have mentioned--but more importantly, when you do hang out, just make sure you really enjoy yourself. Which it sounds like won't be difficult for you.

When your friends learn that skipping out on a meal-based event has absolutely no correlation or dampening effect on how much you enjoy hanging out in other situations, they'll soon become unconcerned about it.
posted by Darth Fedor at 10:47 AM on November 15, 2009

I usually don't eat alot in social situations either. If anyone notices, I say something like "Yeah, I eat like a bird" and laugh it off, and that's the end of it.
posted by amethysts at 10:58 AM on November 15, 2009

Please don't lie to your friends.

For those of us who have experienced eating disorders ourselves, who know you didn't eat already, and that you're not saving your appetite for a big meal later, it's really triggery to have someone else lie about food.

"I hate going out to eat--maybe I can join you for coffee later?" is true. "I have a thing about eating in public; maybe we could do a movie or go to a museum or something else?" is true.

Even "You know I have weird food issues, so the dinner party doesn't work for me. I really want to see you, though: what about a bike ride on Sunday?" might be hard for you (I know not everyone wants to share this stuff, even with close friends) , but it is going to be a lot easier on your friends (who, statistically, are likely to include a couple of people who have experienced, or who are experiencing, eating disorders) than a lie.

Lying in a work situation--a working lunch or whatever--is totally understandable. (Though "I don't have much of an appetite right now" is an inarguable, and true, comeback to "Why aren't you eating?")

If you feel like you need to lie to your friends, okay. This stuff is tough, and you have to take care of yourself. But if you can possibly avoid lying to your friends, please do, because it's so triggery for people who have experienced eating disorders to see someone else lying about food!
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:04 AM on November 15, 2009 [7 favorites]

Do your friends ever do casual potluck-type events rather than sit-down dinner parties? When my friends and I have big food-centered events, pretty much everyone just noshes all day in an unstructured manner. In a situation like this, nobody would notice if you didn't eat as long as you were hanging out, socializing, etc.
posted by radioamy at 11:31 AM on November 15, 2009

I have a lot of social anxiety during group meals, and usually don't want to get into explaining it to people I don't know well. Usually, I just say I'm not a big fan of eating out, or that I'm trying to save money by not eating out.
posted by lunalaguna at 12:44 PM on November 15, 2009

I have an eating disorder (not eating enough food and not eating a wide range of foods) which really prevents me from engaging in social meals.

I would also note that it's possible your eating disorder has a medical condition underlying it. Low appetite/not wanting to eat isn't always just psychological and it was the initial symptom I presented with. Even if there isn't a stomach disorder behind it, eating disorders frequently lead to such lovely stomach disorders as gastroparesis, which I had developed by the time I finally discussed my issues with my doctor and it remains a problem for me that I certainly would have loved to avoid.

It seems you do not want to see a psychologist, but it might be advisable to see a doctor to discuss your symptoms with.
posted by melissam at 1:00 PM on November 15, 2009

Sidhedevil makes a good point- your close friends have probably all figured the truth by now. You can tell them that you hate going out to eat, or you have a thing about eating in public, and then suggest other activities. With coworkers or people you don't know as well, you can just say something like "I can't make dinner but maybe I could meet you before/after for a drink?" I do this a lot because I am a broke grad student and most of my friends tend towards expensive restaurants.

And I know that you didn't ask, but I strongly recommend that you see a doctor or some sort of specialist about your food issues. It's a lot to try and deal with on your own.
posted by emd3737 at 1:51 PM on November 15, 2009

I've never been diagnosed with a problem, and am not seeing anybody about it. However, I am making good but slow progress and think I will be capable of dealing with these situations in a few years. I don't need help in that way.

I don't think it's a good idea for us to be giving you excuses that help you further your eating disorder, or at the very least give you avenues that help you avoid dealing with it. I understand and empathise with where you are, but not seeking help is a bad idea. The very good sign is that you seem to recognise on some level that you need help. 'Not eating enough food' and 'in a few years', however, is a very bad sign, and a terrible combination. Please seek professional help. Constant starvation has deleterious and permanent effects on your body.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:00 PM on November 15, 2009 [8 favorites]

"My doctor has me on a **** (some reasonable number) calorie diet and I had a big lunch so I already have all my calories for the day - but I really wanted to enjoy everyone's company so I came anyway."

Whenever you say "doctor's orders" most people will shut up. Say 1600 calories or something like that. Don't say 1200 calories or something that will start an argument about how many calories are healthy.

Then, after the awkward moment, after people start eating, they totally forget about whether you are eating or not. They won't even notice because they will be so into their food.

My years of experience with this is that if you say you are not hungry no one will believe you and they will try to force you to eat. If you say you don't like X the host will go into the kitchen and not quit till they find something you do like. If you say you have allergies - same thing they will find an alternative. Also if you say you have allergies (my reason for not eating) there is always someone in the crowd that will say "you know allergies aren't real" and then they will go into a tirade about junk science.

I really want to encourage you to find a way because if you are avoiding celebrations with food you are really missing out on a lot of good times.
posted by cda at 3:25 PM on November 15, 2009

"My doctor has me on a **** (some reasonable number) calorie diet and I had a big lunch so I already have all my calories for the day - but I really wanted to enjoy everyone's company so I came anyway."

Please, please, please, PLEASE do not do this.

Do not talk about your calorie counts with other people. It's boring, rude, and incredibly triggering to people who have experienced eating disorders.

Nobody on Earth wants to hear about your calorie counts. Nobody wants to think about your calorie counts.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:39 PM on November 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

You can say "I'm on a diet" or regimen.
posted by scarabic at 4:31 PM on November 15, 2009

Because of medical issues, I cannot eat much. I still go to parties and dinners. I just eat a very little or none at all. If anyone asks, I tell them I have a medical issue and cannot eat, but I am very happy just to be in their company. I also have to attend business lunches. I order something small and move it around the plate. My husband and I go out to dinner frequently. He gets a meal and I "pick." Works for me.
posted by fifilaru at 6:46 PM on November 15, 2009

If you are going to recover from an eating disorder, you are going to need to learn to eat with people. In fact, eating on your own will continue to exacerbate the disorder for several reasons. First, eating with people is an important part of socializing. Social support aids recovery from virtually all disorders, mental and physical, but this is particularly true for problems like eating disorders. So, if you want to get better-- and I urge you to get help as the person above did as well-- stop avoiding eating with people.

The second reason that eating with others will encourage recovery is that if you are alone with food, you have more time to obsess and can engage privately in whatever behaviors your disorder involves. It's harder to do this in public-- which is why you are avoiding eating in public.

Third, as with any behavior, the more you do it, the more you will continue to do it-- repetition is a key reinforcer of any addictive or compulsive behavior. So the avoidance will build a habit that becomes harder to break over time and that reinforces your disorder, not your recovery.

So, if you really want to address the problem, you actually don't need help avoiding eating with people-- you need help *getting more comfortable* eating with people in order to have the best chance at recovery. People will support you in healthy behavior if you let them-- possibly more than you would prefer, which is another reason you are probably avoiding telling them.

If you can break this pattern on your own, great, but if not, seek help.
posted by Maias at 7:12 PM on November 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Not sure what you can or cannot eat, but you say "you won't be able to eat MUCH of it" - can you still go out, get food, eat 3 bites slowly while chatting and having a drink (no one will notice! and if someone asks why you keep doing that say you like to eat little meals frequently) and then ask to get the food wrapped up for later? Then eat it as slow as you want the next day or even next 2 days. Or is that not an option?
posted by KateHasQuestions at 7:44 PM on November 15, 2009

I think Maias makes a good point. You are absolutely allowed to eat whatever, whenever you want, as you see fit. Unless you have incredibly judgemental friends, they probably don't care too much what you are doing, the meal is about the shared experience, not the food. So order whatever you want, eat as much as you want, and if anyone bugs you, just tell them you don't have a very big appetite right now. Build a comfort level. Decouple the social aspects from the feeding your body aspects.

The only caveat is that some people have their own eating issues, and get weirded out if someone at the table isn't eating at all. If you absolutely cannot put something in front of yourself and pick at it, you probably should beg off the meal. For their sake, not yours.
posted by gjc at 6:17 AM on November 16, 2009

I like Maias' and Sidhedevil's advice. I had an eating disorder during my late teens and my early 20s. I had a whole stock of excuses ("I just ate", "I'm not too hungry now", "Nah, my stomach's acting up", "Got to study" etc.) but people saw through them after awhile. I was the girl who never went out to eat, all during college, then at my first job. It was really alienating and I didn't have too many close friends during those years, since this issue kept me at a distance from most people.

What helped me out was to confide in one person (for me it was a boyfriend) and to slowly put myself in food-related situations *just* with him. We would make food together, but it would be food that I felt comfortable eating. We took it to the next level eventually by going out for, say, Indian food. I felt OK eating things like rice and beans then, so to try that type of food, was a fairly safe thing. The next level was to have dinner with him and a couple of friends. Anyway, it was a gradual process, and I still continued to eat a lot of my meals in a solo, controlled environment, but eventually I felt that I recovered. It felt really freeing to go to a party where food was served and to just enjoy myself. I still feel sad that I missed out on a lot of fun times during those years, though. If I had to do it all again, I would have sought out some professional help, which likely would have hastened my recovery.
posted by medeine at 2:43 PM on November 16, 2009

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