'Tis the Season for Setting Your Food Boundaries

Just say no: don't let family and friends push you into eating food you don't want. Quinn Dombrowski [CC by SA 2.0]/Flickr

Are you familiar with the term food pushers? It might sound a bit silly, but it's the people in your life who like to force food upon you, even if you're not hungry or don't particularly like the dish. They can be as innocuous as your grandmother pushing second helpings at Thanksgiving dinner or a coworker urging you to try their mystery meat dip at a holiday potluck.

No matter the eating occasion, you're bound to have an encounter where someone won't accept your no to their gnocchi. It can be helpful to have a few responses prepared that will politely let down your food-pusher without causing a seasonal squabble.

One expert on the politics of food is Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietician who runs a nutrition counseling practice in Newport Beach, California. She has published multiple books on eating mindfully, including "Intuitive Eating," as well as an Intuitive Eater's Holiday Bill of Rights. If that sounds a bit dramatic, perhaps you've never had your aunt demand you try her new recipe for pink pineapple fluff.

Five of my favorite "rights" are found below:

1. You have the right to savor your meal, without cajoling or judgment, and without discussion of calories eaten or the amount of exercise needed to burn off said calories.

2. You have the right to enjoy second servings without apology.

3. You have the right to honor your fullness, even if that means saying "no thank you" to dessert or a second helping of food.

4. It is not your responsibility to make someone happy by overeating, even if it took hours to prepare a specialty holiday dish.

5. You have the right to eat pumpkin pie for breakfast.

vintage color photo of outdoor feast with pie table
No judgment here — you deserve the right to have second helpings. Library of Congress [public domain]/Flickr

The holiday season is as much about food as it is about family, but for many, food is a loaded topic, and time-honored traditions often clash with people's own preferences and boundaries. Some of us might be trying to eat healthier and drink less this season, while others might want to skip the main course and go straight to dessert.

Even though you may have spent hours prepping dishes and picking out the right wine, remember that these gatherings should be more about social connections and good conversations, not the food on the table — although a delicious meal always improves the table conversation.

If, like me, you suffer from a people-pleaser personality, practice saying "no" in a variety of polite ways. If a simple "No, thank you" doesn't cut it, try "I'm too full right now, but maybe later!" My go-to when grandma is pushing a second serving of her squash casserole? "I can't eat any more at the moment, but I'd love to take some home." Guests taking home leftovers should make any cook feel proud, not to mention it's an important step to reducing food waste, which is sadly rampant this time of year. (Of course, though it probably goes without saying, don't take home food unless you actually plan to eat it.)

Carrie Dennett, a registered dietitian nutritionist, writes in The Seattle Times, "To deflect food pushers without stepping on toes, I also like the strategy of starting with a compliment and finishing with a deflection." If you're at a sit-down meal, try "The food was so fabulous ... I literally could not eat another bite" — useful at a sit-down meal. If someone is pushy and won't take no for an answer? Politely follow up with: "No, really ... I just wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate it right now."

Dennett warns against using the "D" word as an excuse — that is, diet. "Not only is diet talk not cool — especially at the holiday table — but the pusher may feel like you’re calling their food unhealthy, or calling them unhealthy for preparing it. They may push even harder with lines like, 'Come on, you have to enjoy yourself sometimes.' As if that's your only chance to enjoy food, or life."

Another social faux pas to avoid? Making up a food allergy just to get out of eating a certain dish. That's a fib that will certainly come back to haunt you. ("I see you're chowing down on those cookies, but I thought you were allergic to nuts!") And it certainly doesn't help the case for people who actually do have serious food restrictions.

At the end of the day, try to focus on the people around you and the occasion you're celebrating. It might feel like you're causing irreparable damage to your mom's feelings by turning down her Duck à l'Orange, but setting and voicing your boundaries is a form of self-care. In the long run, not forcing yourself to eat something you don't want will keep the resentment from building — and your stomach from aching. But don't stop yourself from indulging if you really want to; remember, there's always room for a little dessert.