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When eating with friends, make smart food choices

I had a dream I was dining in a restaurant, one full of people.

There were large groups, all seated together. The bar was full. People were laughing, eating and hugging. Except this time, it wasn’t a dream. It was a real-life dining experience with my family. While it was a pleasure to not have to cook, or do dishes (thank you to all those working in the food service industry!), you realize how deeply we crave social interaction.

Be it at a bar, or a barbecue, social interaction seems to be best accompanied in the presence of food. It truly becomes a celebration of some basic needs: food, water, love and acceptance.

Oddly, that need for acceptance ends up being a rather significant driver in the decisions we make.

As we venture back into a world of eating with friends and family, don’t be surprised when your plan to eat healthy turns into a plate of chili cheese fries. You see, without even knowing it, we take cues from those around us. It’s a very subconscious means of gaining acceptance.

Community survey

La Plata County Extension is dedicated to serving the current and future needs of Coloradans by providing educational programs and services that help people and communities to thrive, but we need your input to best serve your needs.

Complete our community survey at https://extension.colostate.edu/communitysurvey/.

At a restaurant, the first person to order sets the stage. If they choose a salad, it will either affirm your meal choice, or, with a tinge of guilt, cause you to pick up the menu and reassess. Conversely, if the first person orders a burger with all the fixings and a side of fries, well, your mouth starts watering and a salad no longer sounds good. Chances are, you’ll pick up the menu and reassess.

This phenomenon is not limited to dining out. Picture yourself at a barbecue. What you’ll see are people and an assortment of finger foods in every direction. Plus, a cooler full of cold beverages. You’re engaged in conversation, until the minute one person in your circle grabs a chicken wing, dips a chip or reaches for a cold drink. It’s only a matter of time before others follow.

Maybe we all need an excuse to enjoy the guilty pleasures in life. And, while I don’t want to admit this to my kids, I’m just as guilty of using the classic excuse, “everyone else is doing it.”

However, when you realize it’s your fourth social engagement of the week, and it’s Thursday, a moment may pass when you consider making a different food choice. One, without the influence of others.

So, be the influencer. Order first and refrain from asking others what they are going to have. Occasionally, luck of the draw will put you in the position of ordering last. You may find it helpful to look at the menu in advance, and make your decision before sitting down. The trick is to avoid looking at the menu again after you’re seated.

As for the barbecue, there are a couple of strategies to consider. First, use a plate. Holding the plate holds you accountable. Grazing can easily go unchecked. Before filling your plate, look at all of the food choices. Then, serve yourself a few that interest you the most. Second, move the conversation out of arm's reach of the food. Finally, keep your hands occupied with a beverage in hand. Preferably one you can sip slowly or has no calories.

With your heart full of love, and a belly full of food, you’ve successfully navigated another social engagement. What more could you need?

Despite an apparent end to this column, that last question was not a rhetorical grand finale. Take the next step and complete the La Plata County Extension community needs survey. We really do want to know what more you need. Go to https://extension.colostate.edu/communitysurvey/ and click on “La Plata.”

Nicole Clark is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at nicole.clark@colostate.edu or 382-6461.