6 Ways to Say "No" to Holiday Food Without Hurting Grandma's Feelings

Holiday events are filled with high-sugar, high-fat foods that might not always fit into your diet (or you simply may not be hungry). Whether you’re trying to avoid the infamous holiday weight gain or just eat in a way that makes you feel your best, it might feel like there is constantly someone peering over your shoulder and critiquing your choices.

Offer to join in on the prep, so you're still a part of tradition without feeling obligated to stuff yourself. (Image: Artem Peretiatko/iStock/GettyImages)

These are “food pushers” — the people who make comments like, "You're hardly eating, I'll fix you another plate so you don't waste away" or "Don't you like my casserole? You didn't finish it!" Chances are, you know one. Some go by “grandma,” and others are disguised as coworkers or even good friends.

While many of these comments may be harmless, or even well-intentioned, extra attention on what’s on your plate can cause friction that you’d just as soon leave at the door. So here's how to politely decline food you're not in the mood to eat — without ending up on anyone's naughty list.

1. Remember: You Call the Shots

While it may be uncomfortable sometimes, you are the one ultimately responsible for your decisions and actions. If you decide that you're going to do something (like avoid foods that makes you feel ill or just aren’t “worth it”), you have the power to not let anyone else derail you from that.

Social pressure can range from mildly awkward to downright unpleasant but unless your grandma is threatening to cut you out of her will (and even then), no one is making you do anything.

That said, everyone will have a more better time if you don’t go in with guns blazing, waiting for a distant cousin to dare comment on your sliver of pie. So take a deep breath and practice saying "no, thank you," with the sweetest, most genuine smile you can muster.

Ask your brother to back you up when grandma asks why you're not eating her special holiday casserole. (Image: hanker81/iStock/GettyImages)

2. Go in With a Plan (But Be Flexible)

Failing to plan is planning to fail, right? So go into your holiday meals with a strategy. “Planning in advance by talking with the host and those involved about your nutrition choices will help people be more thoughtful and open to considering other perspectives at the time of the event,” says clinical psychologist Ashley Bittle, PsyD.

Consider sitting down with a couple of key family members or friends well in advance of any events asking for their help. Explain that you’ve made some dietary changes recently that make you feel amazing. You’d like some help over the holidays ensuring that you don’t return to old habits that leave you feeling ill or unhappy. Doing this will help you feel like your loved ones are allies in your efforts to look and feel your best.

“It is imperative to consider the audience," says Joseph E. Beyer, Ph.D. "If there are people in attendance you are trying to 'win over,' then you will need to weigh this into your responses.” So if you're over at your boss's house a week before you're up for promotion, you may want to play it cool.

“The idea of refusing a dish that someone has made may seem inconsequential, but you never know how that person will respond,” he says. After all, an extra serving of something you didn’t really want is a small price to pay for the adoration of your new significant other’s family.

3. Tell a “Little White Lie”

Arming yourself with a couple of harmless white lies is a simple way to avoid having to explain yourself to any inquiring coworker or family member. Coming up with a response in advance and practicing if until it becomes automatic under pressure will play to your favor, says Beyer.

Some “white lie” examples include:

  • “I ate before I came, so I’m not super hungry.” (If you feel bad about lying, you can eat a little beforehand to make this statement true.)
  • “I’m not feeling great, so I don’t know if I can stomach anything heavy right now.”
  • “I’d love to try that but [insert food being offered] doesn’t agree with me.”
  • “I have to save room for another event later.” (Even if that "other event" is a party of one.)

“Visualizing and practicing the 'white lie' before being approached by a food-pusher may help ensure you do not get defensive and say something truly regrettable,” says Beyer.

Feeling uncomfortable about fibbing to your family? Use the real reason! Or come up with a list of reasons that are all true and choose the one you feel the most comfortable using.

Not feeling boozy? Make yourself a mocktail and drink lots of water instead. (Image: Rawpixel/iStock/GettyImages)

4. Use Psychology to Your Advantage

Instead of standing around empty-handed while everyone else chows down (which will definitely draw attention), grab a plate and fill it up with foods you do want to eat like lean protein and veggies. People will likely notice that your plate is full and pay less attention to what’s on it.

If you just can't manage to negotiate your way out of fruit cake and cheesy potato casserole, opt for a salad plate. Putting your indulgent, high-carb, high-sugar foods on a smaller plate will allow you to take smaller portions to be polite without filling up on calorie-dense foods that you don’t really want. If anyone comments on your plate size (they probably won’t), feign ignorance and say, “I couldn’t find the big ones!”

For beverages, you’re likely to drink less out of a tall, thin glass and more out of a short, squat one, according to research from psychologist Brian Wansink, Ph.D., published in his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Keep this in mind and have your cocktails in the former and your zero-calorie drinks in the latter.

If you’re mingling before a meal, keep your hands full with a water or mocktail in fancy glass so that you’re less likely to get hors d’oeuvres shoved in your face. If you’re sipping and munching just like everyone else, people are less likely to take notice of what it is that you’re sipping and munching.

5. Always Be Polite

In her own experiences with food pushers, Bittle says she’s found a way to respond briefly when necessary and share more with those that have a genuine interest. When she doesn’t have the energy to give a lengthy explanation, she’ll give a short answer, and then quickly change the topic.

While you may find that an explanation helps smooth over the situation, remember that you don’t owe one to anyone. You can firmly but politely decline whatever is being offered with a “no, thank you.” Delivered with a smile, it’ll likely only take a couple seconds before the food pusher moves on. And if they're unsatisfied with any answer you do give, that's on them — not on you. As long as you're a gracious guest, your conscious is clear.

6. Think About the Bigger Picture

You may arrive with all the resolve in the world, only to find that resolve weakening as grandma unveils her famous cookies that you only get once a year. Or maybe you know from experience that it’s just not worth the fall-out of turning down a family favorite.

Whatever choices you decide to make are fine, whether that ends up being sticking to your guns or loosening the reins a bit. Holiday meals are few and far between, and it’s what you do most of the year that really matters. No matter what happens, you’re never more than one decision away from being back on track.

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