Dining out can be a wonderful experience, filled with the anticipation of creating fun memories, catching up with friends, and savoring delicious food. But for many dancers who are in the depths of disordered eating or even well into their journeys of building supportive mealtime habits, dining out can elicit feelings of overwhelm and stress.
In an effort to become The Healthy Dancer®, nourishment not only encompasses your physical health but also, your mental and emotional well-being. In this article, we will explore the concept of why so many dancers struggle with dining out and practical tips for how dancers can alleviate the stress surrounding the experience.
How can dining out support a dancer?
Dining out can support all realms of The Healthy Dancer®. As a reminder, The Healthy Dancer® defines a supportive relationship with food as one that integrates the principles of intuitive eating with the need for proactive fueling. Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach that prioritizes your body’s basic need for nourishment. It focuses on honoring hunger, respecting fullness, and finding satisfaction in the eating experience— considering preferences and accessibility.
Proactive fueling considers the importance of flexible meal planning in the context of performance nutrition to support a dancer’s increased nutritional demand. The ability to dine out healthfully doesn’t mean ordering the dressing on the side. Rather, it means dismantling food rules, along with granting yourself permission to eat and enjoy the experience without resorting to that all-or-nothing mindset.
Why is dining out stressful for dancers?
Most dancers thrive with structure and dining out challenges this predictability and structure. Discomfort from the unknown is a common reason why dancers develop restrictive food rules in the first place. Seeking control (often around food and exercise) is a way to cope when so much of a dancer’s career trajectory often feels out of control. A few specific reasons that might fuel mealtime anxiety include:
- Navigating menus that don’t align with food rules
- Eating with friends who might be outspoken about their different dieting beliefs.
- Feeling a lack of control surrounding how dishes are prepared
- Feelings of guilt after eating dishes that might not be deemed “good” or “clean” enough by standards set forth by diet culture
- Restrictive food thoughts and/or triggering commentary from the food police.
Identify if dining out is a struggle
Without judgment and ridicule, explore your emotions and behaviors around the idea of dining out. A few key signs that might unknowingly reflect a struggle are:
- The need to check the menu beforehand (more on this below).
- The need to manipulate menu choices for reasons that go beyond medically diagnosed food allergies or intolerances (ie. asking for a salad without the dressing)
- The need to compensate for an eating experience (ie. extra dance class or gym sesh to ‘burn the extra calories.”)
- Feelings of stress and anxiety that get in the way of you attending events altogether.
While many of these experiences on their own might not be a sign of disordered eating, it’s important to consider their cumulative impact. For example, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to check the menu beforehand. Similarly, if you’ve identified a certain food that causes physical stomach discomfort, you might need to alter dishes when dining out. But in each of these instances, your intention matters. Are you looking at the menu because you’re anticipating the excitement of the eating experience? Or, are you partaking in these behaviors in the hope to manipulate your body’s size?
5 tips for dining out without food rules
#1: Don’t restrict beforehand
Eating an adequate amount of meals and snacks in the hours and days leading up to your dining-out experience is critical. Under-eating will set you up for experiences of “over”-eating. I’ve also previously discussed the idea of unconditional permission, which ultimately works to build trust in yourself, and in this regard, around food. When trust is built, intuitive eaters can fully access the concept of unconditional permission, or, permission to eat without strings attached. Predictable and reliable meals and snacks are needed for dancers since their body’s intuitive cues often become less reliable with the age and intensity of dancing.
#2: Focus on the experience
Dining out is not only about the food; it’s also an opportunity to engage in self-care. Focus on the social aspect, enjoy the company of your friends or family, and appreciate the ambiance of the restaurant. From here, you can also tune into your body. Assess your hunger levels and consider what type of food you’re craving. Instead of fixating on calorie counts or “diet-y” options, approach the menu with curiosity and openness. Look for dishes that include a variety of ingredients.
If you’re ready, consider gentle nutrition— does your dish include a balance of nutrients (like carbs, protein, and fat)? Also, does it appeal to your taste preferences? Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad” and focus on finding choices that align with your body’s needs. By understanding your body’s needs, you can make choices that truly satisfy you.
#3: Welcome discomfort
This one refers to a few inevitable forms of discomfort. Eating mindfully enhances the intuitive eating experience. This means engaging all your senses and enjoying each bite to ultimately recognize satiety signals. However, dining out can also turn into mindless eating— chatting with friends, keeping up with conversations, and navigating instances of taste hunger are all normal, and arguably, encouraged experiences when dining out. Rather than criticizing yourself for what can feel mindless, remember that mindful eating might not always be a practical goal when dining out.
There’s discomfort in the sadness of enoughness. It can feel upsetting when we’re physically full, but there’s more delicious food on the table. You can continue to eat— you have permission to eat as much as you need to feel satisfied. You also have permission to honor your body’s fullness cues. Make space for the fact that there is a degree of sadness and discomfort in knowing that a delicious experience is coming to an end. There’s also a degree of sadness and discomfort in the experience of eating past the point of physical fullness. Both experiences are temporary., but the latter is likely to leave you feeling more physically uncomfortable. A few helpful considerations:
- Since restaurant portions are often larger, we can share a dish with a friend.
- Alternatively, you can ask for a to-go box and save leftovers for later.
#4: Embrace Flexibility
Food flexibility offers the space to enjoy the many aspects of dining out. Remember that your food choices do not reflect your moral character. Even when dining out, you can embrace flexibility in your choices— prioritizing preferences and accessibility; using gentle nutrition to navigate overall health and performance goals. Remember, one meal does not define your overall eating habits, and it’s the long-term approach that matters.
#5: Practice visualization
This is a technique I often use with dancers when needing to challenge food rules. Visualizing your dining experience can help to reveal what often feels like the unknown. Build a mental picture of everything that might lead up to your eating experience— who will you be dining with? What will the ambiance be like? Noisy? Quiet? Will the cuisine challenge your comfort zone?
By approaching menus with curiosity dancers can navigate restaurant meals with ease, honoring their hunger, and finding satisfaction. Remember, intuitive eating is a journey, and each dining experience is an opportunity to learn and grow in your intuitive eating practice.