Being a good guest when eating healthier

>> Thursday, January 22, 2009

I'm going off on a little bit of a tangent here today. I read a quote in a magazine recently that set my mind to wandering and my fingers to typing.

What do you do when you've taken on a healthier diet - say, given up HFCS - and are eating food at someone's house? Maybe you're at a playdate and a friend is serving your child bright blue yogurt or maybe a sugary punch drink that you know is filled with HFCS. Do you call them on it? Do you tell them that you don't eat foods like that?

I saw this quote from Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food and Omnivore's Dilemma, in Reader's Digest last week. He says:

I really care where my food comes from, but I also care about being a good guest. So I eat whatever is put in front of me and don't make special requests.
I completely agree with Mr. Pollan. I know that not everyone is on the same food journey that we're on. Some people are not at all concerned about the ingredients in their food, some people are on a very different sort of journey than we're on, and some people are way ahead of us in the foods they eat.

I have had mothers snub snacks that I've served at playdates in the past, and I found it incredibly rude. (I'll note that no food allergies were involved. Food allergies or intolerances completely change the picture.) You can serve me shrimp floating in a pool of HFCS and topped with globs of trans fat, and if it is my only choice that you're serving me as a host, I'll eat it with a smile on my face (or else take a cue from my father and declare that I ate a big lunch and am just not hungry). I'm happy to talk about what we're doing with our diet if it comes up organically, but I'm not going to belittle your way of eating. That just isn't polite and isn't what a good guest should do.

I do think that we should fight for the food that our kids eat. We should fight for better school lunches. We should make it known with our pocketbooks and e-mails and blogs that we won't tolerate trans fat or HFCS or whatever else gives you the heebie-jeebies in our food - especially when that food is marketed to children. We should lead by example and eat a good, healthy diet so that our children have something to model. But we should also remember to be gracious to our hosts.

What do you think? Do you challenge your host if they serve you something that doesn't fit a healthier diet? Or do you eat it what you're given without comment?


TwinToddlersDad January 22, 2009 at 8:42 PM  

I think it is a sensitive issue, but I do agree with what you say. We should show some tolerance (unless it is a matter of safety) and respect for the host.

I would, however, try to find a polite way of having a conversation about healthy eating without trying to embarrass the host. It is quite possible that they do not realize the long term effects of poor eating habits. However, this should be done with care and respect and without passing any kind of judgment. In our experience, we have found people to be quite receptive to such discussions.

Lori January 23, 2009 at 5:31 AM  

I had to deal with this some over the holidays with my in-laws. They use a lot of fake sweeteners and fat free products. I usually eat what is served, but I do skip some things if there is an option. For example, if it is a dessert & they offer ff ice cream with it I'll just ask for no ice cream. They are always quick to please we just have different health food thoughts. However, when it comes time when we have kids and there are artificial sweeteners on the table I will have a stronger opinion I think.

Hanlie January 23, 2009 at 5:33 AM  

I agree with you and Michael Pollan. If there's a variety of foods, it's easier to avoid the really bad ones...

One of the best tips I've heard about children's parties is to feed your child his/her favorite meal just before the party, so that he/she is filled up and less likely to overdo it on the treats. I myself have often eaten a salad before going out to friends', because I knew that it would take a while before the main meal was served and there would be snacks all over the place that I would dive into out of sheer hunger.

Karen January 23, 2009 at 6:09 AM  

We would eat or politely claim "being full." I cannot think of a circumstance where I would not find it offensive to have a guest point out "the long term effects of poor eating habits" when discussing my meal for them. It's rude & inexcusable. And insulting your hosts is no way to convince them of your superior knowledge on food choices.

Sandy Smith January 23, 2009 at 6:55 AM  

I completely agree with you (and was pleased, but not surprised, to see that Michael Pollan feels the same) - I would not risk hurting a host's feelings over my personal food preferences. If someone is kind enough to offer me or my family a meal, I'm going to suspend my preferences in gratitude for their hospitality.

Barring allergy concerns or dietary restrictions, of course, the focus of the shared meal should be on the fellowship. I wouldn't want any perceived disapproval on my part to ruin that goodwill.

If I want to demonstrate my preferences, I can always invite that person to my own home to eat, and make a point to serve the foods I typically serve. That way, they'll be exposed to my food philosophy in a way that's more subtle and not as a challenge to what they've offered in their own home.

Tara Burner January 23, 2009 at 7:00 AM  

Guess we're the odd balls here because in past be it at church or school or someone's home my DD will tell them she's not allowed to eat certain things...mostly when they're trying to get her to eat items w/splenda or aspartame in them. She'll tell them she's not allowed to eat it and thank you anyhow. Nobody's been hurt or insulted, most comment on how responsible she is and how knowledgeable she is in what is good vs not so good. We eat only organic foods here and while we don't expect everyone to be like that we will not put something in us that's not good for us just because it's served. You can decline it in an appropriate way and nobody gets feelings hurt or otherwise. Also opens the door to discuss better options, and discuss nutrition, chemicals, etc.

James Hubbard M.D. M.P.H. January 23, 2009 at 7:56 AM  

As a guest I eat what's serve, or push it around and mix it a lot so it looks eaten.

At office functions I explain, I can't eat the donut because of my blood pressure, cholesterol or whatever.

Sagan January 23, 2009 at 8:22 AM  

I think you're right. We should be grateful and eat it. Luckily, when we go to someones house for dinner there's going to be a few different dishes and there's got to be SOMETHING that's somewhat healthy, so you can always eat more of that dish and just try a little bit of the unhealthy stuff. But it's such a tricky situation!

Blake January 23, 2009 at 9:39 AM  

I agree. Being a good guest is a good thing. When we hang out with friends if they serve something I usually wouldn't eat, my wife and I will share or I will just have a little of it. Great post.

laura January 23, 2009 at 11:29 AM  

I like what your father says--I think "Thank you, but I'm just not hungry," should always be an option. That said, I think there's probably a big difference between snacks and full meals, and it's truly a pleasure to enjoy food with people who know you well enough to know what you like and vice versa.

Anya January 23, 2009 at 11:43 AM  

Luckily, I don't have sit-down, formal meals very often at other peoples houses, they're always buffets/serve-yourself. So I'll just take little helpings of things that may not be groovy with my typical eating habits and bigger servings of veggies/salad/etc. I adore veggie and fruit trays because I actually hate cutting these things up myself--I consider them a huge treat when I go visiting.

Mark January 23, 2009 at 12:06 PM  

I flat out say no thank you. My wife will often ask me to relax a bit when it comes to speaking up. I have no problem stating what I think when it comes to food. Have a nice weekend!

cathy January 23, 2009 at 2:13 PM  

TwinToddlersDad - Yes, it's often possible to talk about eating healthier without offending your host. It's tricky, but not impossible!

Lori - I think that maybe family can be different. They probably have a pretty good idea of who you are as a person - and I think that includes being free of fake food.

Hanlie - that IS a good tip! And one that I too often forget about.

Karen - I think that's the big issue to me - not being insulting to my host.

Sandy Smith - Nice comment! We share the same views here.

Tara Burner - I DO think that artificial sweeteners (and there are other ingredients that come to mind as well) are a valid issue. We choose to overlook that at a guest's house. My philosophy is to feed my children as good as I can at home and in their school lunches so that I don't have to worry as much about the foods and ingredients they're facing from others. I hope that I can teach them to eat healthy as a rule, but I personally have to let go at some point. That said, I think that your way of handling it is an interesting one. Becoming adept at declining offensive food in a polite way is a skill that we could all use!

James Hubbard - Ah, the art of food deception! I've done the same myself many times. I do think that there are certain functions and times when you can get away with vocally declining a food - such as you describe.

Sagan, Blake, and Anya - Having choices with a meal makes it so much easier!

Laura - My father is a pretty picky eater. I learned a lot watching him politely refuse food that I know that he didn't care for. Best of all, the hosts never knew that he didn't like the food!

Mark - I suspect that people who know you would expect nothing less than polite but blunt honesty from you. Not a bad thing!

Super Healthy Kids January 24, 2009 at 2:46 PM  

I think you said it well. In our social circle, we actually don't eat with people that often to make it an issue. And because its rare, I think its OK to eat whats served. Its not like its the bulk of your diet.
When we are at family parties, there is usually such a variety, its easy to pick and choose the best options. We go for the vegetable tray, we bring whole wheat rolls, drink water, etc. I'm with Mark's wife... lighten up, it doesn't have to be an issue unless you make it an issue.

Jenna January 28, 2009 at 7:47 PM  

we usually eat what we're served when out, and avoid the unhealthiest things if there's an options. the kids eat birthday cake, food coloring ridden snacks, and gobs of juice boxes at EVERY birthday party we're at. same thing with fast food. we eat it so infrequently and i never make fries at home, so they eat french fries when we're out. haven't come across an instance where the only sweet treat used artificial sweetener, think i would just avoid it.

Hobo Mama February 1, 2009 at 1:56 PM  

I agree, too. Usually the food people serve at a dinner is something they're proud to share and have been looking forward to showing off. My husband's mother in particular shows love through making food, and we'd be rejecting her if we rejected her food, you know? Plus, I have to realize that I don't know everything about what's best to eat, even when I really, really think I do -- I think I've gained some humility after seeing health trends change so much over the years. We found it awkward to know what to serve friends with very restrictive diets, and we never wanted to be those people who made everyone uncomfortable with having over.

My biggest challenge comes in rejecting something that I really can't stomach, taste-wise, without making the server feel bad or inviting awkward questions. Like seafood or pie or beer. I just can't handle them, but I get asked if I'm on a diet or a teetotaler or whatever. I just try to be self-deprecating about my odd tastes, but now I think playing (or being) full might be a good trick.

Elizabeth Jarrard March 2, 2009 at 10:52 AM  

I really like your blog!
Sometimes social settings can be awkward because I'm vegan and don't eat refined flours or sugars. But I hate to be rude or see pretentious so I try to eat what I can. Most people know about the way I eat, and are accommodating, at least to the vegan part.
Hopefully someday everyone will realize how important it is to eat unrefined foods without HFCS!!

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