Holiday Meal Script: When and How to Explain Your Food Choices

how to explain food choicesHoliday get-togethers can be dicey, even uncomfortable, for those of us who eat a “weird” diet. Everyone has an opinion or a biting remark. As tempting as might be, you can’t just holler, “I’m not weird, YOU’RE weird. I’M eating a SPECIES-APPROPRIATE DIET!” in Aunt Martha’s face when she tries once again to put a biscuit on your plate.

You have to say something though, right? Or do you? When do you have to explain your food choices?

I’m tempted to say: Never. End of post.

By and large, your diet is nobody else’s business. But communication is vital in relationships, and here’s where it gets tricky. On the one hand, you don’t owe anyone an explanation, and it’s disrespectful on their part if they expect you to justify or defend your choices. Often, though, people are just concerned, confused, or simply curious. You don’t owe these folks an explanation, but in the spirit of open communication, you might choose to offer them one.

General tips for keeping the peace:

Keep it personal. You won’t get as much pushback if you focus on how your diet makes you feel. Don’t launch into a lecture about phytates or how soda is ruining our country’s health. Nobody’s looking for a lesson on leaky gut and inflammation during dinner.

Don’t overexplain yourself or get defensive. Keep it short and sweet, then move on.

Don’t try to convert them. If you start to proselytize, you’re doing the same thing to them that they’re doing to you. Your simple explanations will plant the seeds for anyone who’s interested in learning more later.

Don’t get sucked into an argument. State firmly that you’d rather not discuss your diet. If the other person continues to challenge you, walk away (or, in 2020, leave the Zoom).

Beyond that, the best strategy for dealing with diet queries depends on who’s asking and why:

Mild Incomprehension

This is the “I don’t get it…” and “Wait, so you’re not going eat stuffing?” crowd. There’s no malice. They just can’t grasp why someone would give up bread and pasta.

Strategy: Deflect

  • “Haha, I know, I thought it was crazy when I started, too, but I can’t believe how much better I feel. Plus I get to eat all the turkey. Ooh, will you pass me a leg? Hey, how’s work going?”
  • “No stuffing for me, thanks. I’m trying this experiment for a while longer. Did I see on Facebook that you’re writing a book?”
  • “It’s true, I’m eating Primal/paleo/keto/carnivore now, but you don’t want to hear me ramble on about my diet. Let’s go see if Mom needs help setting the table.”

Sincere Curiosity

You can tell these folks from their tone of voice. They are genuinely interested in hearing what you’re doing (and maybe even trying it for themselves).

Strategy: Lightly educate

It’s up to you how deep you want to go here. My advice is to stick to basics and offer to talk more later. Avoid launching into a diatribe about why they should cut out grains and sugar while they have a bite of pie halfway to their lips.

  • “I kept hearing people say how much better they felt after cutting out gluten and dairy, so I decided to try it for myself. They were right. It helped so much with some health issues I was having. It was hard at first, but every time I eat bread now, I remember how much worse I used to feel. I’m much happier eating this way.”
  • “Really, it just means that I’m eating tons of plants, meat, eggs, and stuff like nuts and cheese, and dark chocolate. Easy. The big thing I’ve noticed is how much more energy I have. My skin cleared up, too. If you’re ever interested in trying, I can tell you more.”
  • “Some of my friends wanted to try keto, so we all read this book called The Keto Reset Diet for our book club. It’s been five months, and I’m still going strong. The book made it easy if you ever want to borrow it.”

Mockery

Good-natured teasing is one thing, but ridicule is another. Keep your cool and get out of these conversations as quickly as possible. There is nothing to be gained from engaging. Depending on your relationship with the person, you might use humor or directness, but either way, shut it down.

Strategy: Escape

  • “Good one, Uncle Greg. Hey, I’m going to get some egg nog.”
  • “Isn’t it great how we don’t all have to eat the same diet, yet we can still be friends! I’m going to go check the score of the football game.”
  • “I’d rather not get into an argument about this, so let’s change the subject.”

Criticism

This one’s a little more complicated because criticism can come from very different places. Some people are just mean-spirited grinches who like to find fault in others. With them, use the escape strategy above. Don’t let them bring you down to their level.

Often, though, when people criticize your diet, it comes from a place of fear or insecurity, not hostility. Fear because what you’re doing goes against everything they believe to be true about health. All they may know about your keto diet, for example, is that a fitness celebrity told them it is dangerous. Or, they may feel threatened by the uncomfortable realization that they could be doing more to be healthy themselves.

Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand where they’re coming from. You’re not going to unpack all the layers of flawed conventional wisdom, self-esteem issues, and complicated family dynamics in this one conversation, but at least you can respond with compassion and grace.

Strategy: Acknowledge, reassure (for fear-based criticism), change the subject

  • “Thank you so much for caring about my health. My doctor knows how I eat, and my labs are great. Let’s go see what the kids are up to.”
  • “People do say this is a fad, but honestly, it’s how everyone used to eat in previous generations. It’s nothing new, and I’ve never felt better than I do eating this way. But anyway, I heard you guys are adopting a puppy!”
  • “Yes, I know they say that whole grains are important for health. I’m always open to changing my diet again, but I’m going to try this way of eating for a little while. Do you think anyone would like to go for a walk before dinner?”
  • “Yes, that ‘documentary’ caused quite a stir, didn’t it. To be honest, there were a lot of problems with the science. I don’t want to bore you with all the details, but I can send you a blog post. It outlines all the flaws and provides a bunch of journal citations if you’re interested. Just email me to remind me. Do these green beans have bacon in them? So good!”

The Guilt Trip

These people act as if your diet is a personal affront to them. “You’re not going to have any of the pie I worked so hard on?” “What’s Christmas without cookies?” “But you always loved my cornbread stuffing!”

You don’t need them to understand or approve. They just need to respect your choices or at least be quiet about them.

Strategy: Flip it back on them

  • “Oh Aunt Mildred, I do love your pie! At times like these, I wish I hadn’t discovered how sick gluten makes me. I know you’d hate for me to spend the rest of the evening in the bathroom!”
  • “Cookies are great, but the only thing I really want is to spend time with you. Family is so important to me, and we don’t see each other enough.“
  • “You’re right, but I’ve learned that I feel so much better when I eat this way. It’s hard to say no, but I’m sure you’ll support me like you always have. Thank you so much for understanding!”

The Exceptions to the Rule

I said you never have to explain your food choices, but it’s just common courtesy to let your hosts know ahead of time. Explain your situation, and make it clear that you are not expecting them to change their menu to accommodate you. Offer to bring a side dish or dessert.

If you are hosting, and you plan to make only options that suit your diet, you aren’t required to give your guests notice. However, if that means you’re not making traditional dishes that your guests will expect, you might give them a heads up. Let them have the option of bringing their own Hawaiian rolls.

Lastly, remember that while you don’t owe it to anyone, it might be ok to chill on some of your diet rules for one night. A few bites of pie could be a small concession to keep the peace (as long as it won’t make you sick). Of course, if your family or friends are going to make it that unpleasant, you’re also free to decline the invitation.

Have you had to deal with less-than-supportive friends or family since you changed your diet? How did you handle it?

About the Author

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit lindsaytaylor.co.

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22 thoughts on “Holiday Meal Script: When and How to Explain Your Food Choices”

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  1. You can arm yourself with a bunch of excuses for not eating the carby stuff at a holiday get-together, but there’s usually no need. My experience has been that most people are too busy with their own food to notice what other people have on their plate. Don’t bring it up, and in all probability no one will ask.

  2. Now that my mother in law is no longer with us, no one cares what I eat and why. She was the only one who thought I might be too skinny, ahahahahaha, she was so sweet! She grew up in a boarding house so when you went to dinner at her house there was two of every choice, too much for me to eat a teaspoon of all of it. I just started to eat mostly the meat and I did fine. NO ONE ELSE noticed! And because she loved me she was fine with me eating only what I wanted.

  3. My defense is that I’m just doing what my doctor tells me to do… (Dr Naiman in Seattle). It’s a luxurious protein-first approach, on par with Primal.

  4. You don’t have to eat the food that is on your plate. Sometimes it’s easier to take small amounts of the foods you aren’t going to eat, eat what you want, and move the rest around your plate.

  5. There are some great strategies to manage conversations! Thanks for sharing this post. I also feel like this could be re-contextualized for tons of other cases.

  6. I’m somewhat old school. Be gracious and eat what is put before you. Aunt Mildred worked hard on that pie. Have a small slice and put a smile on her face. To me, that is more important than a strict Thanksgiving plate. In a way, it is giving Thanks to the host/hostess and their hospitality. A Thanksgiving.

    1. I agree. I try to take as small a piece as I can get, and if I fell like it’s too much, I just move around the plate and get rid of it when no one is looking.

  7. Super post today! I love the wisdom in this; the same principles can be applied to almost any situation; avoid conflict when possible and just seek peace and pursue it.

    1. Agreed. Excelent post.

      Sometimes when people launch on a diatribe against me, I just let them run out of steam and simply smile when they are done. A compassionate smile. Works wonders. I might say, ‘you have a point, I’ll put that on the backburner for further consideration, thanks!”

      If the person continues and manages to really annoy me, I might be a little naughty, let them speak their lungs out, and when they are done I’d say: sorry, I was distracted by the game on the TV, could you repeat that? lol
      But I only do that if I feel the person is WAY out of line. Otherwise, just smile and move on.

      Thankfully no one in my family ever deserved that treatment. I’ve always said that I have a medical condition that restricts my diet, makes me very sad and I don’t like to discuss it, and that’s that. We don’t discuss each other’s medical conditions in my family, unless expressly asked to.

  8. I suggest a couple of times a year, lighten the heck up and eat every rich fatty delicious food in sight, especially Thanksgiving.

  9. My extended family has gotten used to how we eat. They used to make strange comments, but now some of them have even adopted some of the things we do.

    We never had arguments, never any anger. I just tell people it’s how I discovered I need to eat.

  10. I rarely find that I need to be defensive at all. People don’t judge me. Likewise, I don’t judge anybody for making common, modern (though yes, often poor) food choices. I did that too. It’s very much to the credit of the ancestral food movement that so much that was “weird” 5 years ago is now completely mainstream and even common sense.

    When we have people here for thanksgiving or any other reason, we accommodate them and us. We’re ambassadors of an idea, not soldiers for it. I buy the best bread I can find. I’ll get pizzas. We just made a big amazing looking apple pie (that I’ll probably skip). I try hard for quality. I don’t buy breakfast cereal or bagels because that’s low grade stuff, and I lean much harder on putting out our own foods than the questionable stuff. Besides, when I lay out a great charcuterie tray of great foods (and also bread), do you really miss your pop tart and easy mac?

    When people wonder about why I’m eating this but not that, or why I’m skipping the bun or biscuit, I keep it simple. About carbs, I explain that I’m not opposed to carbs per se, but that I avoid processed foods. Which includes sugar, flour, etc, because grinding them up or dissolving them is how you eat or drink too much of them. For most people skipping bread but eating a sweet potato is a big step up. Sounds too restrictive, they say? Steak and pastured eggs for breakfast is not a sacrifice. Breakfast cereal is. Nobody has ever tried to argue with me that avoiding processed foods is a bad idea.

    About meat, I immediately differentiate between the locally sourced 100% pastured heritage chicken, pork, and beef that we eat and a burger at McDonalds. A *shudders* bucket of parts at KFC. It’s important to differentiate between disgusting conventional farming, which many vegans are rightly concerned with, and restorative agriculture and backyard farming. Since most veggies and vegans (my former self included) appear to be some form of junk food eater (like lots of pasta, soy burgers, etc) they’re usually inclined to agree that processed food is a poor substitute for responsibly farmed meats. They also might understand that a world of processed industrial soy monoculture meat substitutes is unlikely to solve any health or environmental problems.

    Also, if you encounter anti-meat type arguments often, I’d suggest the book “Wilding” by Isabella Tree. This is a real world, nuts and bolts, hands on example of what a world without factory farming can look like. It is a real gem and the most comprehensive environmental, ethical, and practical rebuttal to conventional farming and the resulting anti-meat movement that I’ve ever seen. The writing is outstanding and joyfully written, inspirational, very funny and densely informative. I recommend reading the sample chapter on Amazon. You’ll see what I mean.

    I wish you all a very non-combative thanksgiving!

  11. My wishes to everyone are to enjoy the time with one another, however many that might be and to also enjoy whatever it is that you choose to partake of. As someone who was just diagnosed with this virus and one for whom the sense of taste and smell have been lost for which I do not know if they will ever return, count the blessings you have of whatever it is that you eat.

  12. This is really helpful and mature advice that can be adapted to other areas of life, too.

    Probably the best thing you’ve written.

  13. I guess I don’t get it. Why lie or think one needs to justify anything. I never explain my food choices. I just eat what I think is right and leave everything else alone.
    “No thanks” is all one needs.

  14. How about just eat what you want and not worrying about explaining it.

    It’s just confidence to do your own thing with out having to explain/justify it.

    Live your own life.

    gr

  15. I don’t have the energy to explain my food choices to people who won’t listen. I am not going to eat something that I know will make me feel horrible to make other people happy. My health is priority over peer pressure.

  16. Maybe one of you have some ideas on what to do in this case. My mother has health reasons not to eat the standard diet. She also lives in/has lived in small, tradition Southern communities. When she read this article she said, “This is great but doesn’t cover co-workers who angrily confront you in front of others for disrespecting the honoree of a retirement party when you don’t eat any of the food offered. That has happened to me in more than one place of work. I’ve never known what to say to those people that would not add fuel to the fire. I’ve chosen to just avoid those events.” Any helpful advice out there, other than my non-helpful, “Tell them to take a flying leap!”

    1. There are any number of snappy comebacks but not everyone is good at handling unpleasant confrontations. Maybe your mom’s solution is the one that works best for her. She can always congratulate the honoree privately and offer her regrets for being “unable” to attend the party.

  17. Cghgghggghhhhhu and afternoons and afternoons and evenings and weekends and afternoons and evenings and weekends and holidays ???????????????????????? tree ??????? for your time and afternoons and