As a dietitian (and human who appreciates food!), I am a huge believer in the connection that comes from being around a table together. Whether that table in your home or in a cozy restaurant booth, there can be lots to look forward to. Eating with others and eating out can also bring with it some stress and discomfort. But eating out doesn’t need to be a guilt-ridden experience!
Before I begin, I want to address the privilege of affording to dine out at restaurants. I recognize that eating out is a luxury not everyone can afford. Eating out with any frequency as a part of an intuitive eating practice is a privilege for which I am grateful.
Aside from restaurants and cafes, the content of this post can also be applied to meals eaten anywhere outside of your home. Any occasion where food is being prepared by other people can add an element of discomfort and uncertainty. This could include birthday parties, weddings, and other celebratory meals hosted by family and friends.
Let’s first identify a few of the common restaurant-related challenges that you may be facing.
All or nothing thinking
It is common for people to feel black and white about their eating habits. Their mindset around food is that they are either being completely healthy, or having a “cheat day”. For many, dining out in restaurants feels like an indulgence or a splurge. The reality is that eating at a restaurant can be a natural, normal and easy part of your eating pattern. The key to making this possible is building your relationship with food around intuitive eating.
Lack of flexibility with food
In my post on feeling obsessed with food, we talk about the difference in being a foodie versus being obsessed with food. One of the hallmarks of obsession is the lack of flexibility you feel around food. This may manifest itself as food rules, calorie counting, or categorizing food as good and bad. This rigidity in your eating plan can be indicative of disordered eating or chronic diet mentality. This kind of relationship with food can prevent you from having a pleasurable and enjoyable time eating at restaurants.
Eating at a restaurant brings with it the temptation to compare your plate to those around you. It is easy to fall into the trap of wondering if someone else is eating “healthier” or “better” than you. Or maybe you find yourself comparing amounts eaten and feeling self-conscious about your appetite. Over time, with practice and growth in food freedom, you can rediscover the fun and benefit of eating out as those preoccupations begin to fade away.
Visibility of nutrition information
Sometimes, restaurants have their menu items’ calories listed. For those battling disordered eating or chronic diet mentality, this information can be hard to ignore. If you struggle with this, you may consider asking someone else to read you some items off the menu and you can make a selection without having to pour over the menu yourself.
Strategies for reducing guilt when eating out
Here are a few tips to help you feel confident and comfortable in your next dining out experience. I’ve broken them down into two categories – strategies you can work on in advance to prepare for a more enjoyable eating out experience, and strategies you can use in the moment.
How to prepare ahead for eating out guilt-free
- Look at the menu ahead of time to reduce overwhelm/decision fatigue in the moment. Don’t over-analyze it, and try to avoid looking at any nutrition information (like calorie amounts) but let yourself start thinking about what sounds good or what kind of a food challenge you’re up for.
- Build a challenge hierarchy to identify which types of foods are more and less challenging. Start with the less challenging foods to build up your confidence, then progress to ordering more challenging foods (foods that feel scary or have always been very “off limits” for you).
- Don’t save up your calories by skipping meals earlier in the day. Eat normally throughout the day, with meals and snacks every few hours to keep you nourished and avoid becoming over-hungry.
How to cope with guilt in the moment when eating out
- Make use of coping skills you can do at the table. Plan to pause and take a few breaths to encourage connecting with your surroundings and your body sensations. You can get some additional ideas from my post on embodiment practices.
- Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. This is one of the 10 principles of intuitive eating, and is especially important when you’re not portioning out your own food. Go into the meal knowing you can eat everything on your plate if you want to, but also that you don’t have to just because you paid money for it.
- Lastly, remind yourself that sometimes we eat past fullness. That’s a normal part of eating. It doesn’t mean you “failed” at intuitive eating. If your body feels uncomfortable at the end of the meal and that makes you start to feel anxious or overthink, you can tell yourself: This feeling will pass. Food will be digested. That’s how bodies work.
Eating intuitively while eating out
While eating out can be a fun experience, eating with others and eating foods prepared by others can add anxiety to the eating experience, especially when you struggle with disordered eating. Dining out can be a valuable experience for growing in food freedom and building competence in intuitive eating. For more guidance on how to grow trust in yourself to regulate your eating without rules and limits, go grab my free guide which covers your First 3 Steps to Food Freedom.
And if you live in or are visiting the GTA, I hope you get the chance to try someplace off my list of best restaurants in Oakville, Milton and Burlington!