Cut the Food, Keep Your Social Life

Take a moment to think of one occasion, gathering, celebration or holiday that does not involve food in some fundamental way. Having trouble? I’m not surprised. We live in a food-centric society, a culture so obsessed with eating that we incorporate this behavior in almost every social activity imaginable. If you plan to associate with other people in practically any fashion, there will be a meal, drink or refreshment involved.

Take a moment to think of one occasion, gathering, celebration or holiday that does not involve food in some fundamental way. Having trouble? I’m not surprised. We live in a food-centric society, a culture so obsessed with eating that we incorporate this behavior in almost every social activity imaginable. If you plan to associate with other people in practically any fashion, there will be a meal, drink or refreshment involved.

But why? For one, food is a form of social currency. We offer others food to show them that we care. Food is a versatile gift that everyone can accept, understand and appreciate. When people are gathering, food welcomes and puts people at ease. As well, food is a great distraction and adds a bit of entertainment to any situation. Food at a gathering creates a positive atmosphere and ensures a group of happy campers. When you ask my 84-year-old grandmother how her friend’s party went, she bases her response on the food served (“It was wonderful – she had a beautiful nova platter!”).


While food will likely always remain on the invitee list, it behooves us – given the nation’s obesity epidemic – to think about ways that we can scale down the importance of food in our social world. Here are some ideas for food-free options in a variety of social situations:

Special Occasions

Birthday dinners, anniversary brunches, Fourth of July barbeques … there is always another occasion (and associated meal) just around the corner. Why is it that we often allow the food, rather than the reason for the gathering itself, to take the spotlight? These traditions often begin in childhood, so we need to start changing the paradigm there. Rather than asking your daughter where she’d like to eat for her birthday dinner, plan some activities that celebrate her talents, interests and strengths. Let her wear her favorite costume while you and she run errands; hang up her artwork all over the living room; give her first dibs on the front seat of the car all week. Make the occasion – your daughter and her wonderfulness – the star.

The Office

Power lunches at the finest restaurants, doughnuts around the conference table, after-work happy hours. Where there are long hours and think tanks, there will be food. However, some progressive companies are implementing the “walking meeting,” in which the leader projects his or her voice by megaphone while leading the employees in walking laps around the hallways or outside the building. Other companies have instituted no-food rules for birthday celebrations. Instead, employees can opt for a special privilege on their birthday (e.g., take the afternoon off, utilize a special parking space).  

A Funeral/Wake/Shiva

While those in mourning often appreciate visitors bringing a meal to ease the burden of cooking, the amount of food that accumulates at these gatherings can be overwhelming and unnecessary. Express your condolences in a more creative way. Rather than bringing yet another dish, offer your time. You might assist with funeral arrangements (ordering flowers for the ceremony, housing out-of-town guests, providing transportation for the family) or you could put together an album or collage of memories of the deceased as a gift to the family. These gestures will be more meaningful and enduring than yet another casserole.

Start putting some non-food gatherings onto your social calendar. Your friends, co-workers and waistline will thank you!

Q: I end up overeating because it makes me feel better and I never really get full. I'd like to lose weight but this makes it hard. Any suggestions?

A: Being persistently hungry can cause big trouble. So can overeating for comfort/pleasure. These two behaviors, say researchers from Baylor University's Children's Nutrition Research Center, are controlled deep within your brain by serotonin-producing neurons, but operate separately from each other — one in the hypothalamus, the other in the midbrain. They both can, however, end up fueling poor nutritional choices and obesity.

Eating for Hunger

When hunger is your motive for eating, the question is: "Does your body know when you've had enough?" Well, if you are overweight, obese or have diabetes you may develop leptin resistance and your "I am full" hormone, leptin, can't do its job. The hormone's signal to your hypothalamus is dampened, and you keep eating.

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