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NEDA Week 2019: Sharing Food While Tuning In

As this week approached, I asked folks on Instagram what recovery topics they’d like to hear about. One of the questions I got was how to eat around others.

The question didn’t specify a stage of recovery, but I think it’s an important conversation for any stage! At the start of recovery, learning to eat socially again can be a hugely healing and meaningful, as well as a challenging, step. Years into recovery, staying tuned into one’s own food hungers and needs while also enjoying the spontaneity and “flow” of social gatherings can be a fine balance. It can be a fine balance even for those who haven’t had eating disorders or disordered eating: separating social pressure from actual cravings is one of the topics I discuss most often in my counseling work.

I’ve gone through phases with social eating in accordance with my own place in the recovery process. At the beginning, I committed to greeting restaurant meals as an opportunity to practice flexibility first and foremost. This meant being open-minded about where I ate, challenging myself not to analyze menus endlessly beforehand, and not freaking out if a meal wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

It was hard work. I’m glad I gave myself a sort of training in going with the flow, but looking back, I wonder if I wasn’t a little too pushy with myself. I was so determined to prove my recovery, to myself and to others, that I sort of forgot that dining out is supposed to be a source of pleasure. I ate meals that I felt lukewarm about in order to prove my non-attachment to food. It may well have been what I needed at the time, but if enjoying restaurant meals was the goal, it didn’t really get me there.

Now that I’m more grounded in my recovery, I have less of a need to use social gatherings as an opportunity to prove my flexibility. I’m more vocal about my likes and dislikes, more confident in voicing preferences. I’m more tuned into what makes me feel good. This, I think, is an important part of having a food thing of my own. What matters is being able to recognize when having preferences will enhance my enjoyment of a meal, versus when it’ll burden me or get in the way of my living in the moment.

The food preferences that matter to me in social settings nowadays are very unlike the ones that used to matter most. I used to worry a lot about how healthful food preparation in restaurants was, which led me to stick to a small spectrum of menu options that felt “safe” (usually salads). It was difficult for me to branch out, try new things, or even to take advantage of cool vegan dining options when they presented themselves.

Today–perhaps ironically, given that history–one of my main priorities when I eat with others is to be honest and real about wanting to feel satisfied. I don’t relish “small plate” dining, which never seems to fill me up. Likewise for vegan dining that’s overtly vegetable-centric, which is trendy right now: I crave grains, beans, and vegan proteins. I’m happy to eat at omnivore spots, but if I have the choice not to eat someplace where I’ll have to cobble together a few salads for a meal, I will. Of course these preferences fluctuate with what’s available, practical, and fair to others. But I’ve become comfortable with acknowledging that satiety matters to me.

Of course “eating with others” isn’t only about eating out. It can apply to family gatherings or meals with friends, or even to one-on-one, intimate dinners. For the most part, I love eating with my loved ones, especially cooking for friends or partners. Eating with strangers can be a mixed bag. I’m sensitive–maybe too sensitive–to how much the people around me take pleasure in food. It’s tough for me to enjoy a meal with those who seem ambivalent about eating, which I know is my issue, not theirs; a craving for validation or permission, maybe. And years out of recovery, I still sometimes bristle when attention is called to my appetite. This happens fairly often, probably because I’m a volume eater (lots of plant-based eaters are). When it happens, it strikes a nerve that runs directly back to my childhood, when my big appetite was often a subject of teasing.

What has guided and helped me the most in finding a pleasurable experience of sharing food has been to “check in” from time to time with my body. When I was at the start of recovery, I treated social meals as a mental/psychological challenge. Sometimes the challenge was so all-consuming that it was all I could focus on, and I spent shared meals in a state of distance from my body and its cues.

Today, I try to be as attuned to my body when I eat in company as I am when I’m on my own. It can be work: social gatherings are distracting, often in a fun way, and it’s not always easy for me to scan my body for hunger cues or take a moment to really consider what would satisfy me. When I do, though, it almost always deepens and enhances the pleasure I take in eating.

As I was writing this post I had the intention to share a few tips about eating together for the sake of those who’ve had eating disorders and are in the long process of recovery. It occurred to me that sharing food can be difficult for many other reasons: for example, if one lives with a health condition that requires management through eating a certain way. A person might also have anxieties around shared meals that have less to do with food than with the circumstances (feeling ill at ease in groups or having group meals evoke difficult past experiences). Being vegan, plant-based, or having food allergies/intolerances can be a social challenge in its own right.

No matter what makes dining with others tricky for you, here are some of the practices that have allowed me to truly savor shared meals while staying tuned into my body and needs.

1. Scan your body before you join others for a meal. Before you enter a social gathering, it can be hugely beneficial to take a quick inventory of how you’re feeling. For me, tuning into how I feel–tired? vulnerable? energized?–always leads me to better understand what I’m craving and what I’d like to eat. I can approach my meal as an opportunity to get grounded, to recharge, or to celebrate, among other possible experiences.

2. Stay tuned into what you want and need. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve showed up to a meal with a clear sense of what I craved, only to have ordered something else because it’s what worked in a group setting. Sometimes this is unavoidable: if I’m eating at someone’s home, for example, I’m happy to enjoy what’s being offered and shared. Likewise for work-related meals and some family gatherings.

Sometimes, though, there’s space to have a meal that’s more in line with what I want, even if it involves speaking up. I’ve often ended up sharing dishes at restaurants because other folks I was eating with wanted them; it hasn’t always been easy for me to verbalize the fact that I’d like something different, but I’m getting better at doing it. Part of my comfort resides in realizing that it’s OK to want what I want and crave what I crave.

3. Contribute. This only applies to homemade gatherings and meals, but one of my favorite ways to bring some of my own food tastes and personality to a shared meal is to contribute a dish! This is an opportunity not only to enjoy something desirable, but also to share it with others. And if I’m eating with omnivores, it’s sometimes an opportunity to encourage a new perception of vegan food.

4. Check in. A body scan before dining is great, but it can be equally important to stay tuned in as a meal goes on. When I’m dining with others I sometimes forget to practice the mindful eating I’m accustomed to doing on my own, which involves eating more slowly than I’m inclined to (left to my own devices, I inhale) and taking moments to check in on my fullness. I’ve learned with time to do this around other people. Even if it feels a bit strange to pause and take a breath in someone else’s presence, a single moment of inward focus can go a long way in helping me to experience a meal more presently.

5. Practice being unashamed. I say “practice” because shame is an experience that tends to cling and linger. Releasing it takes time, patience, and endless self-compassion.

For me, it has taken years and years to become prouder and more self-assured about my food needs, my cravings, and my appetite. I’ve always taken this intention seriously, but it’s been humbling to realize how ongoing and complex the work around it is. Each shared meal is an opportunity for me to let another person bear witness to my commitment to self-nourishment. Some of them are easier than others, and some company is easier than others. Regardless, I do my best to satisfy my hunger and to experience pleasure along the way.

Final thing worth saying? Not every shared meal gives me as much space to check in as I’d like. Sometimes I become sensitive to interpersonal dynamics, and I lose sight of my physical experience. Sometimes I don’t have opportunity to eat something I’m excited about. When this happens, it’s OK. One of the early recovery lessons I learned was to not treat each meal as though it was my last, and this has remained an important truth to me over time. It’s important for me to acknowledge my love of food and do my best to create dining experiences that I’ll enjoy. It’s equally important for me to maintain a sense of perspective and roll with the punches when that’s what the situation calls for.

Hope these tips are useful, and of course I welcome you all to share whatever approaches have allowed you to share food pleasurably.

This is my last NEDA week post of the year, but as always, the conversation doesn’t end here. I’ll still be celebrating recovery through the weekend on Instagram, and as always, I’m here to support and encourage you however I can–even if that means simply sending love from behind my keyboard. You are loved, and you are enough.

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