Note for people on diets

I’ve noticed that often, people who diet assume that everyone else around them either is or should be dieting. This can cause problems when they are responsible for feeding others.

Some examples:

  • If someone is planning a conference and all the food they make available is low-calorie
  • If someone is hosting a speaker from out of town in their home, and they only offer them a very small amount of food, and it’s logistically difficult for the speaker to get other food
  • A babysitter feeds active kids a green salad and nothing else for lunch

So, here are some things to keep in mind:

Other people’s nutritional needs might be different from yours. When you’re feeding someone, it’s important to feed them according to *their* nutritional needs.

This is particularly the case if you are on a low-calorie diet. When you are responsible for feeding others, it’s quite likely that they will need more calories than you do. Especially if they are children. Double especially if they are teenagers. (And this is especially important for teenage girls, since they’re often actively being pressured into diet culture.)

Low calorie food isn’t inherently healthy. It’s healthy in a particular set of circumstances. It’s unhealthy and dangerous in others.

If you’re feeding people, meet their nutritional needs. Don’t feed them according to yours.

Asking followup questions

Is it OK to ask follow-up questions? So if I asked someone “Would you like some of my ice cream?“, and they said no but I felt there was more to it, and I said something like “should I avoid offering you food?”, would that be OK?
This is often ok, yes.
I think phrasing it as “Would you rather I didn’t offer you food?” would be slighting better. “Should I…” could be perceived as defensive, It could also be read as you wanting them to offer a reason that you could  potentially argue with. “Would you rather…” is clearer about wanting to know what their preferences are.
If you can read body language, pay attention to it when you’re asking questions. If they seem uncomfortable, it’s probably better not to ask additional follow up questions.
(If they’re a friend, it might be appropriate to ask if they’re ok. If they’re a professional associate, err on the side of backing off.)
Sometimes it’s better to back off rather than try to fix things, especially if the problem is that someone is feeling really self-concious.

Having people over for dinner

One potentially enjoyable form of interaction is to have people over for dinner.

Some ways this can be good:

  • Eating together can make conversation easier
  • Since it creates an activity and a focus
  • But it doesn’t take up all the attention; you can still talk
  • Eating at home can be cheaper than going out
  • It can also be less overloading, since your place is probably less noisy than a restaurant 
  • It can also be more private, because you’re less likely to run into unwelcome people, and because there aren’t as many people around who could overhear

Some things about guests:

  • Invite people who you like
  • Invite people who like each other
  • It’s not very much fun to hang out with a group of folks who dislike one another, even if you like all of them separately
  • Don’t invite too many people. It’s much more fun to have dinner with a group of people that’s a comfortable size for you
  • It’s often considered rude to invite someone but not their partner, with two major exceptions:
  • If you’re hosting a single-gender event and their partner isn’t the relevant gender, or:
  • If you’re hosting an esoteric interest gathering and it’s something only one of them likes. (Eg: If you’re having a party for people who like to talk about spiders, it’s probably ok to not invite a partner who hate spiders)

Some points about food etiquette: 

If you are in your 20s and living in the US, it’s likely that you’re in a culture in which it’s normal for guests to bring some of the food. (This is different from a potluck, which is a communally-hosted kind of meal at which no one person has primary responsibility for making the food. I’m planning to write a different post about that later.)

If you are invited over for a meal:

  • It’s considered polite to offer to bring something
  • The most polite way to ask is to say something along the lines of “What can I bring?” because it suggests that you’re expecting to bring something rather than hoping they’ll tell you not to bring anything
  • If they say not to bring anything, don’t
  • Some people prefer that you don’t, or might have cultural or medical reasons to want control over the food that’s in their space
  • Also, in some cultures it’s considered rude, so if someone doesn’t want you to bring something, it’s important to respect that

If you are doing the inviting:

  • It’s usually considered rude to ask people to bring things if they haven’t explicitly offered to
  • If people offer, it’s ok to assume that they mean it, and to ask them to bring something
  • But be reasonable about it. Don’t ask people to bring something expensive or complicated unless you are planning the meal together and hosting jointly
  • It’s usually considered reasonable to ask someone to bring one of these things: bread, wine, salad, soda/juice, or a dessert

Some specific things about food:

  • You should make/buy a main dish that is filling and has protein of some sort
  • And also probably a side dish or two
  • And drinks of some sort – but it’s ok if it’s mostly water
  • Make sure you have enough plates/cups/knives/forks/spoons/etc for everyone
  • Find out if people you’re inviting are allergic to anything
  • If you are serving meat, find out if there are any vegetarians
  • If some people are vegetarian, it’s nice to make a vegetarian protein in addition to the main meat dish
  • But in any case, at least make sure that some things don’t contain meat (eg: don’t put bacon bits on the salad or use lard to make a pie)

This is a good kind of gathering. Are there other things people should know about how to do it?

When food preferences complicate social food

attenua asked:

…How do you deal with stating inconsistent preferences? I do not like some foods (e.g. cheeseburgers and pizza) because their high grease/fat content makes me feel bad after eating them. I frequently have to explain that a restaurant that has those foods or other high grease/fat alternatives will not serve me anything I will eat. This can look like I am criticizing other people’s eating of those foods, which is not helped by sometimes eating those foods anyway.

I think the most helpful thing is usually to suggest something specific that would mean everyone could get to eat something that they want.

For instance, if everyone wants to go to McDonalds, and you don’t feel up to eating greasy food that day, it could work to say “How about we go to Whole Foods instead?”

Or, “How about you grab a pizza, and I’ll grab something from the supermarket and we’ll meet up in the park?”

You don’t necessarily need to say why you don’t want to eat that kind of food. It’s hard to go into detail about that without sounding judgmental, and it’s also no one’s business, and not super-relevant to the practical problem at hand.

One thing you could say if you want to give a reason is something along the lines of: “I’m kind of not feeling up to eating greasy food today. How about we go to Place That Has Greasy And Non-Greasy Food?” That wouldn’t sound like a categorical statement that you will never eat greasy food ever, and it might not sound like an objection to others wanting to do so either.

(Saying explicitly that you’re not judging anyone would probably make matters worse. “I’m not judging anyone but…” is usually the kind of thing people say to get away with saying judgmental things, similarly to “no offense but…”)

Generally speaking, people are a lot more willing to do something that will solve a problem if they don’t have to come up with the actual solution themselves.

More on restricted diets

Do not take food issues personally.

If someone can’t eat something, it’s not personal:

  • It isn’t a rejection of your hospitality
  • It isn’t an insult to your cooking skills
  • It isn’t a comment on your health, your lifestyle, or your diet

It’s also not any of your business:

  • Don’t expect an intimate conversation about the reasons behind the food restriction
  • Don’t make a big deal about it
  • Do not comment about weight loss
  • Do not offer unsolicited medical advice
  • Do not offer unsolicited health advice
  • Or unsolicited religious commentary
  • Or your views on vegetarianism
And especially, don’t do dangerous things:
  • Don’t try to trick people into eating things
  • Even if you think their food issue is a ridiculous phobia and that tricking them would cure it
  • Seriously, seriously, don’t do that
  • It won’t help, and this kind of thing can and does kill people
  • And, in any case, irrational people also have the right to say no

You do not need to agree that the person is correct about what to eat in order to interact with them respectfully. You just have to arrange for it to be possible for them to be in spaces you’re in, and for it to be predictable whether there will be anything for them to eat there.

Cooking for people who can’t eat certain things

Some people have complicated dietary needs.

If you want to cook for them, much sure you understand what they are.

The basic way you do this is by

  • ask them what they can and can’t eat
  • believe them
  • make food they can eat
  • don’t make food they can’t eat
  • if you aren’t sure, ask
  • If one of the ingredients is something you haven’t talked about, ask

It can also help to say that you will not be offended if they need to bring their own food.