Just Say No! Handling Holiday Food Pushers & Proselytizers
One of my clients, who came to me to lose about thirty pounds, had a real problem. He loves to eat and he loves to please people. In fact, he said pleasing people is the main reason he overeats. This tendency becomes especially troublesome over the holidays when friends, family and colleagues invite him for meals. My kind client literally cannot say no to anything.
As a result, he says holidays are a time of joy, but also frustration, because his need to be polite is in stark conflict with his goal of trimming down. Many of us can appreciate his dilemma. Holiday delicacies can be difficult to navigate, especially if you’re trying to avoid gaining a pound per week from Thanksgiving to the New Year. And that can bring out the best and the worst in people, hosts and guests alike.
We all know hosts who aren’t satisfied until they convince us, beg us, to eat more, more, more. Their misguided entreaties are hard to resist, if only because we want to be polite.
To be fair, food pushers aren’t bad people at heart. Your mom, your spouse, your friends – they just want to please you. They’re people who think they have your best interests at heart and know more about what and how much food (and drink) you should be consuming than you do. It seems these people aren’t happy until they’ve stuffed you as if you’d just ended a hunger strike.
My clients and I have tried various tactics through the years, most of them utter failures. For instance, I’ve found the worst thing you can say to a food pusher is, “No thanks, I’m on a diet”… or “Thanks, I’m watching it.”
You might as well say, “Talk me into it!” Your excuse is giving the food pusher a double signal – that you really want it, but have to refuse. It’s also insulting, as though you’re saying the food isn’t good enough for your refined tastes. And, finally, it may bring up guilty feelings in the pusher, that they should be “watching it” too. All of which challenge the pusher to seduce you.
No excuse seemed to work as I tried to fight back the food pushers’ advances, including explaining that I wasn’t hungry. I even went through a phase of telling people I’m allergic to this or that. Sadly, that didn’t work, either.
I didn’t start sensing positive results from my refusals until I learned the most basic rule of all: never give excuses. And I’m delighted to say that one of the foremost authorities on etiquette told me that this approach is both appropriate and wise.
“The best answer is a simple but firm ‘No thank you,’” declared Judith Martin, syndicated columnist who writes as Miss Manners. “Once you give an excuse, you open yourself to argument.”
Miss Manners also offered clear advice in her column to food pushers, and their “endless patter of coercion – ‘Oh, come on, one won’t hurt you, I made this especially for you, it doesn’t have any calories, you’re too thin anyway, it’s good for you, you’re not going to make me eat leftovers tomorrow.’ Miss Manners asks them to cut it out.”
“To offer and provide food is lovely, but to badger people into eating it isn’t pleasant,” Martin told me. “Politeness consists of offering food and drink without cajoling or embarrassing people into taking it.”
But families may present a more complex and challenging case. I somehow doubt my family would have heeded Miss Manners’ advice when I was growing up. I was so hounded to eat more, more, more! It seemed almost every dinner became a power struggle, even though I kept asserting that I was simply not hungry. The holidays were the worst. With all that food around, what I was eating seemed impossibly meager to my family.
Scientists have now concluded that pushing food on children is a big mistake. It ruins their ability to self-regulate food intake based on their natural hunger signals. Infants know naturally when to eat and when to stop. But, by around age four or five, if children are pushed or rewarded to eat more than they naturally want, they’ll start overeating regularly.
When I became an adult, I again tried to assert myself, but to no avail. During visits to my grandparents in Sweden, for instance, every day I felt overstuffed from too many fattening (and, yes, delicious) Swedish meatballs, cheeses and cakes. Inevitably with each visit, I came home several pounds heavier. While “no thank you” was fine for hosts, I had to use a different tactic with my family. They just didn’t take “no” for an answer!
I decided the solution was to take a more positive approach. There was no changing the fact that my family wanted to please me with food. So I decided I’d drop subtle hints and compliments to guide them into serving me food that wasn’t going to make me look and feel like a Swedish meatball.
This technique of continued positive reinforcement took several years (in psychology, it’s called “shaping”), but it eventually worked beautifully. When they served seafood, salads, fruits – food I wanted more of – I complimented lavishly. “Sweden has the best fish in the world!” “I just love your salads!” (which was all true, by the way). You get the idea. Over time, whenever I’d visit, they’d lavish me with what they learned that I especially loved: seafood, salads and fruits. (Yes, I also loved the fattening stuff, but that was easily obtained and I wanted to limit my indulgences without announcing it).
The same technique can work with your coworkers, friends and family, and it doesn’t have to take years. At Thanksgiving or over the holidays, instead of focusing on what you don’t want or can’t have, and using turn-off words such as “healthy” or “diet,” simply compliment your hosts and stay positive so they’ll know what pleases you. Instead of, “Oh, I can’t have that,” when offered the 1600 calorie prime rib, say: “I’m really in the mood for a crunchy, delicious salad!” Instead of saying: “fried calamari is so fattening,” say: “Steamed shrimp sounds yummy!” Instead of: “I can’t have dessert, I’m watching it,” say: “The meal was so satisfying, I can’t have another bite!” or “I’m really craving fresh raspberries!”
My client was thrilled when he tried this tactic with his family and friends, and has been successfully losing weight ever since. He was surprised at how a simple compliment could stop food pushers in their tracks and is looking forward to using the techniques over the holidays.
Even Miss Manners agrees that using simple compliments is okay as long as you don’t go into too much detail. In the end, no food pusher can resist a happy guest.
Of course, as a guest, you have obligations too. While issuing compliments and saying “no thank you” is perfectly acceptable, forcing your likes, dislikes and opinions about food on the host or other guests can be downright unappetizing.
Today, it seems almost impossible to escape people on this diet or that, freely espousing their strident views and suspect theories. My clients regularly complain that their guests expect them to cater to their particular dietary requirements – no carbohydrates, no fat, no white flour, no sugar, ad nauseum. While it may be fine to be following a diet, expecting the host to be a short order cook is unfair. And discussing dietary views at the table is a no-no. It can make people feel uncomfortable, guilty, and even angry. Today, food is political. It’s also very personal. Everyone has their own strongly held views.
“This attitude that other people haven’t seen the light and you have to make them see the light makes the experience of eating unpleasant,” says Martin. “Cooking has improved enormously over the decades, but the experience of eating has gone downhill because people are so self righteous and willing to boss other people around.”
What I’ve come to realize is that when we visit family or friends for holiday parties or meals, there is a joint obligation at work, a sort of unspoken agreement. We should visit friends and loved ones with a generous spirit, grateful for the meal provided. We’re there to have fun and enjoy. On the other hand, hosts have an obligation not to force their hospitality on guests, compelling them to eat more than they wish. It’s not polite, is counter-productive and feels uncomfortable to notice or comment on what or how much a person is eating.
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