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 tojust 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!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.