Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Oct

Dear Mark: How to Politely Pass on Dessert

It’s a common question I get: how to graciously decline the proudly presented delicacy, the traditional or long-labored sweet, the celebratory dessert. Like it or not, desserts are woven into our cultural doings and gatherings. As one reader put it recently, “I’ve been trying to go quasi-primal for about 6 months and have had very good results. A challenging situation that I’ve experienced is declining dessert offers from friends who LOVE to bake. How do I politely decline a chef’s generosity without offending them?”

Anyone who’s been doing the Primal diet for a while now has probably found him/herself in this sticky situation. Maybe it’s dinner at the home of your spouse’s boss, lunch with your daughter’s future in-laws, a long-awaited weekend at an old friend’s house or a birthday celebration with your grandmother. Whatever the setting, the sensation is the same – that sinking, burdened feeling when the host sails in smiling, mile-high chocolate cream pie in hand. Your mind suddenly frantically catalogues the possibilities, planning how you’re going to dodge this one. Maybe you’d intended to tell them ahead of time and forgot or hoped you could avoid the issue altogether somehow. Either way now, you know there’s no escape. There’s no reasonably gracious way to grab your coat, and excusing yourself to the bathroom will only mean a truly generous (a.k.a. mammoth) piece waiting for you upon your return.

Maybe the dessert is an old favorite of yours, and you’re truly tempted but nonetheless resolute in sticking with your Primal routine. Perhaps you’ve been Primal long enough (and the dessert looks sweet/heavy enough) that you take one look and think to yourself how abominably sick you’ll feel later. Either way you’re in a mental tug-of-war between sticking by your own best interest and showing your appreciation for your well-intentioned host’s efforts. At stake, of course, is embarrassment, resentment and all manner of hurt feelings. The scenes play out in your head mercilessly. Your spouse is irritated that you can’t accept dessert in exchange for a smooth dinner with his/her boss. Your daughter is embarrassed that you turned down her future mother-in-law’s specialty. Your grandmother is heartbroken to learn you don’t enjoy her spice cake anymore. Suddenly, a simple request makes you feel like the most inconsiderate person alive.

Certain situations offer an easier out than others. How many of us silently cheer when we see a buffet setting? Even if it’s a relatively small group and a total dessert absence will be noticed, you can selectively forage and choose as small a serving as you want. Likewise, it’s generally easier to turn down dessert at a larger gathering. Although you might not fly totally under the radar, your host and other guests will be busy enough that your nix isn’t likely to take center stage. Finally, the better you know people (particularly if you aren’t related to them), the less fuss will likely result from your courteous refusal. (They probably already know about your Primal lifestyle anyway.) Smaller parties hosted by those lesser acquaintances or, potentially worse, job/family relations often are the really hot water situations.

One tactic to gracefully turn down the ubiquitous dessert is to plan ahead and let the host know about your dietary choice. In this age of condition-conscious and otherwise individualized menus, most hosts do ask. As a good will gesture, you could even offer to bring something more Primal-friendly (like fresh fruit) to accompany the main dessert. Don’t be offended, however, if your host seems reluctant or outright declines. Not only would the addition take away from his/her featured dish (some cooks being more sensitive to sharing the spotlight than others – we all know these people), it might make other guests feel self-conscious about not having contributed themselves. Nonetheless, you extended the effort and offered respectful notice of your situation.

But what strategies can you employ if you find yourself suddenly caught in the moment itself, facing down a triple layer torte? Some people universally follow the “honesty is the best policy” principle. In truth, it’s the most straightforward approach (and therefore least likely to get you enmeshed in future conflicts), but it isn’t necessarily the simplest route. Catching the host by surprise this way might make for an awkward moment at the table or even put others on the defensive for their own choices (don’t you hate that?). If you’re going to take the truthful route, I’d suggest keeping the explanation itself as brief as possible. (Of course, you may not have much choice in this regard if people start asking questions, which they generally do.) If you’re feeling cornered, try putting it in personal and deferential terms – that you’ve live by this diet because you simply feel better on it, that you do indeed miss certain things (whether it’s genuine truth or polite exaggeration) but that for you it’s been worthwhile. Conjuring relativism this way – with a nod to the superb things you “unfortunately” forgo – admittedly diminishes the valid logic of your Primal choice, but it can help settle the discussion. I’m not suggesting dissing your Primal commitment, but putting it in personal terms allows others to take it as individual choice (or idiosyncrasy, to many) rather than directed judgment.

Of course, there is also the little white lie we might entertain to save other people’s feelings and our own trouble later. I’m not advocating this approach, but we’re all human. A lot of us have probably feigned “fullness” at some point in our Primal endeavors to avoid the dessert pressure. (And, hey, you can always load up on the meat dish or salad to really make it happen!) A few readers have mentioned they claim food allergies, particularly gluten sensitivities, to duck the dessert or other carb dishes. On a more humorous/heinous note, I’ve known people who’ve said they took the cake with a smile but then clandestinely tossed it out when no one was looking. I suppose by the same token it could be hidden in a purse or stashed behind a plant. The host’s dog is usually happy to help, but then there’s the issue of potential allergies, diabetes, etc. (There’s one way to make a bad situation infinitely worse.) On a more subtle note, you have the classic dissection and relocation on the plate tactic or the calculated use of a napkin, which can then be thrown out (or cleaned out) later on. A truly strategic move would be to offer to clear the table. Anyone else have good stories they want to share?

Adopting the Primal Blueprint means you own and live by your health choices (whatever they happen to be in the moment). It means being comfortable with living your life your way. It means giving others, including your host, enough credit to respect you. It means not feeling resentment for eating something you don’t want to eat. Maybe you view the situation as a slippery slope. Especially if you’re with people you see on a regular basis, an exception now can become the assumed pattern for future get-togethers.

On the other hand, there comes a time when you might choose to just eat the damned thing to keep the peace. You want to spare your dear grandmother heartache. Your spouse is in line for a promotion and this dinner with the boss could conceivably make or break the deal. Sometimes our decisions favor practicality over principle, and no one here is judging that. To some extent, that’s what the 80/20 principle is all about.

Life happens, and there are legitimate reasons – both social circumstances and the occasional personal enjoyment – for choosing something outside the Primal picture.

The timing, of course, isn’t lost on me. I realize I’m writing this less than a week before Halloween and on the cusp of the holiday season. We’ll all soon find ourselves surrounded by an assembly of sweets big enough to send our insulin skyrocketing by the visual alone. All this at just about every social occasion from now through the end of the year…sigh.

It would be great if I could just say eat the dessert or turn it down, but social situations are inevitably more nuanced than that. Ultimately, the choice depends on the particular dessert in question (how exactly un-Primal it is), your relationship with the host, the nature of the occasion and your own personal circumstances (if you’re in the midst of a weight loss endeavor, for example). Whatever your decision, own it, enjoy it (the dessert or the discipline) and rest assured that a good Primal diet isn’t made or broken by any one portion.

Share your tips, jokes and good stories for dodging dessert. Thanks for the questions, and keep them coming!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. today’s ‘daily apple’ was so well timed..i’ve been primal for almost a month and i love the way i feel on this program. last night i got an email telling me that there will be cake at an upcoming professional meeting, and suddenly i was sooo crabby. traced that feeling back to the realization that of all the things i no longer eat, cake is the hardest to resist. it was great how mark reminded us of the 80/20 rule and advised us not to beat ourselves up if we slip. just that permission makes me stronger. thanks, mark!

    lynnie ley wrote on August 30th, 2011
  2. I usually tell them “no thanks, that’ll make me feel sick/like crap” which is true. Sugary foods will leave me tired, and greasy foods put me on the toilet. Shame on individuals for trying to poison my body!

    Joseph Tripp wrote on August 30th, 2011
  3. I just say, sorry, “I can’t have sugar or any sort of starch. It looks amazing and im sure it tastes delucious. I might take a piece hone for my mum if theres any left.”I have an indignance that I am nor obliged to go off my lifestyle just to fulfil someone’s need for praise. if they get offended, it’s silly and they need an attitude adjustment. I get extremely annoyed when people try to force things on me or maniPulate me with their “hurt feelings”. It’s like blackmail. What I eat is none of anybody’s beeswax.

    Milla wrote on September 8th, 2011
  4. If they made it, you can’t decline, and that’s the end of that story.

    If its in a restaurant, just decline. Though one handy thing is to look friendlily at the waiter and say “But I’ll have a Coffee!” instead.

    OhgodIdontknowhowmuchmoreofthisIcantake wrote on October 3rd, 2011
  5. It is a shame so many feel so subtly victimized by another person’s (assumed?) sensitivities. I remember what that felt like, so my heart goes out to you all. But the astounding truth is – you don’t have to tell anyone anything at all in way of explaining what you are choosing in any moment to put into your body for any reason. Sure, they wanna know. So what? Just say no thank you. If they ask why? Just say I just don’t feel like eating it. Don’t apologize, even with your EYES. “Just a little slice.” “No thank you.”
    Just let them be uncomfortable for a moment, even feel uncomfortable yourself. So what? You’ll all get over it in about 10 seconds. Ahhh, sweet freedom. Much tastier than cake.

    Jamie wrote on October 5th, 2011
  6. I had an interesting one last thanksgiving. I normally take pumpkin pie & leave the crust as this causes little imbalance for me. But the hostess made it with sugar pumpkins & still used the same amount of sugar. Total disaster!

    Donna wrote on October 14th, 2011
  7. a long, long, time ago, far, far away, i overheard the grown-ups decline offers of different types of foods by saying “oh, not thank you – that has _________ in it. i can’t eat _______. it doesn’t agree with me”.

    then the 80’s came along and people started drilling down into more specific sensitivites (emotional peanut allergy, anyone?).

    i prefer this old-school approach for dealing with older adults (50+). also – the added bonus for me is that there’s no lie in it, so i use it a lot.

    natalie wrote on November 9th, 2011
  8. It becomes harder if you’re staying with people important to you for several days, as I will be doing in March. Their diet is appalling even by SAD standards. Minimal vegetables, much processed dipped in crumbs and fried meats. Fruit is a non event totally. Desserts, chocolate are the main dish. Coco cola is purchased in large amounts and sits on the bench to be consumed like water. I was unable to resist the chocolates just lying around on side tables (they buy the stuff by the carton not just the packet). I truly don’t understand. Last time I stayed there I purchased most of my own food. I’m in a much better head space now so hope it will be easier this time. They think I’m odd!!

    Marg wrote on November 10th, 2011
    • OMG! Bummer! When I went to DK my aunt told everyone in advance I was allergic to carbs. So everyone was sweet & made more vegetables. I took my own homemade protein bars for breakfast & had coffee & cheese with it. It worked out well! Next time I would have more bars to make up for some of the scant meals. The coolers you plug in, could be packed with other things & kept in your room. Like having your own fridge with healthy snacks & beverages.

      My same aunt has a trick which may help someone. She tells people she has to go to ‘church’. Then they go out to eat what they want somewhere. (she’s not even catholic!) LOL Does anyone else have a clever idea? Good luck everyone! It is hard!

      Donna wrote on April 20th, 2012
  9. did anyone else think Half Baked when he mentioned feeding the cake to a dog? Butternut! “I didn’t know that horse was a diabetic!”

    Jaclyn wrote on March 12th, 2012
  10. I am 21 and have been diagnosed with diabetes a couple years ago. It seems like it would be easy to refuse, until you visit someone diabetic who thinks you have so much in common. When they are someone who is old, overweight, unhealthy, on a buch of meds, and lives a completely opposite lifestyle but we both have “diabetes” so i can have some pf heir healthy choice desserts or some artificially sweetened crap. I don’t consider myself diabetic anymore, and it is hard to explain why I eat the way I do. I eat the food that is healthy for me only, not your diabetic uncle!!! Leave me alone if I don’t want your gluten sugar hydrogenated oil filled dessert. For me it’s the assuming they know how I eat that bothers me.

    Barbara wrote on October 31st, 2012
  11. This is a good article, but *please* do not lie about food allergies or sensitivities. I actually have severe food allergies and sensitivities, and am constantly accused of faking them because everyone knows someone who does that, apparently. Please…just take any approach other than that.

    Kitt wrote on November 4th, 2012
  12. I’m a little concerned by some of these suggestions about hiding and refusing food. Mashing food around on your plate? Hiding food in a napkin? These are classic eating disordered ways of dealing with food. Now, I’m primal with the best of them, but it’s never healthy to treat any food as something contemptable to try to weasel your way out of. You may unknowingly be teaching an impressionable person how to progress in their eating disorder.

    Just be open and honest. A firm “No thank you” should work.

    Michele wrote on March 28th, 2013
  13. i always say, no thank you. and it works. if they ask; are you sure? i say, i’m good

    vicky wrote on March 28th, 2013
  14. SInce sugar makes me feel bad (physically ill) after I eat it, I simply say “I can’t eat sugar”. If pressed further “Are you diabetic?”, I just say “No. I just can’t eat sugar”. That usually ends it and word gets around. There are LOTS of excuses in my office to celebrate with sweets (BDays, Anniversaries, Retirements, etc.). A lot of the time, the people bringing the treats will also bring fruit, but for the most part, I no longer get “grilled” when I show up to wish well and leave without eating.

    Ronin wrote on July 3rd, 2013
  15. I don’t really have a problem with having to decline food. I’ve known about my celiac since I was 15, so most people know, “Oh, Katie can’t eat NORMAL food” but now people feel sorry for me and want to make me special things and it’s so hard to give them direction. I know, I know “Boo-hoo, people love you,” But what people don’t understand is that I really don’t feel deprived when I’m sitting there with my thermos of soup and baggie of grapes while they eat their sandwiches and cake!

    Also I think I’m becoming the weird girl who brings soup with her everywhere she goes. 😀

    Katie G. wrote on July 6th, 2013
  16. My usual response (if a simple, “no, thank you” doesn’t work) is to say that I’m on dietary restrictions for a medical issue or medical issues. It’s truthful – primal eating keeps me off GERD medications and has rid me of a host of other health problems. Plus it sounds just “official” and personal enough that hardly anyone digs further; for those that do, I say it’s a *personal* medical issue that I’d rather not discuss. Usually works for me.

    ashes987 wrote on September 8th, 2013
  17. I don’t eat dessert. And I am invited to functions for the expressed purpose of offering me dessert. I end up not-going, because it’s so awkward and uncomfortable.

    My experience has been that people are rarely content to leave my answer at “No, thank you.” So I have to explain that I DON’T LIKE dessert. The sight, taste and texture repulse me. And you really don’t want to know what chocolate looks like to me.

    It’s entirely inconceivable to most people that a person could not like dessert. Even the author of this blog treats the subject as something that the reader would want to eat if not for a commitment to the diet.

    Cynthia wrote on January 19th, 2014
  18. It’s the age old dilemma isn’t it. We’ve given up on the things we know we shouldn’t eat and we manage fine until the moment it’s offered up and we really don’t want to offend. Strangely when I’m in the company of people who I know don’t eat healthily I find it very easy to say no to the things I don’t want to eat, dare I say it makes me feel quite superior lol. Like alcohol, I seldom drink because it affects my sleep and gives me palpitations but I find it the easiest thing to refuse because I know that everyone else will be drinking like fish because the host provides endless bottles of wine and that their behaviour will eventually reflect just how much they’ve had. I just watch them getting more and more under the influence and feel great drinking just water.

    Desserts aren’t quite so easy but I have a big thing about eating anything that I can’t be certain about the ingredients so it’s much easier. I actually gave in when my sister in law said she had cheesecake, I agreed to have some, it was god awful, bought almost certainly from some cheap food outlet. She only cut me a sliver for which I was grateful.

    So I wonder, why can’t we just say no and not have to undergo the third degree about why? Is it something in the person offering, nay pressing their dessert upon us that needs a reason why we won’t have it? I think it’s largely because they would love to have the resolve to refuse too but don’t and therefore are driven to make you have it in order to assuage their own guilt. There’s nothing so comforting as being in the company of those who know they shouldn’t but they all do, they can either feel guilty together, “Oh I know I shouldn’t but go on then” or they can indulge like naughty children who know they aren’t going to be given away. It’s all psychological.

    SueG wrote on August 24th, 2014
  19. I have termed “obligatory eating” as eating such things to please others , be it a special dessert or other Carby foods. I try to keep my diet tight to make room for obligatory eating. my personal rule is that I will always eat celebratory food such as birthday or wedding cake. I sometimes I’ll ask what we are celebrating when someone offers such food at work as they do so often. I think it is also an oppurtune moment to tell someone that I try to keep desserts to 3x per week(even if it’s less). Frequently they agree and express their wish to do the same.

    Scott killmer wrote on December 24th, 2014
  20. I like to place my hand on my tummy and something like “not right now, thank you” or “I am going to wait a little while” this will give me a nice diversion, and often can distract anyone long enough for the event to end.

    Karen wrote on December 26th, 2014

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