6 Ways to Eat Mindfully at Parties Without Feeling Deprived

Social get-togethers are a blast—there's good music, good people and, of course, good food. After all, nothing screams "party!" quite like an enticing spread of appetizers. And while you're working on filling up your plate, it's likely you'll have one, two or three people come by and say hello first. Before you know it, you've devoured three sugary cocktails and a quarter of the chip dip in between conversations.

Sound familiar? You're not alone. We all know what it's like to mindlessly graze, only to unconsciously consume an entire day's worth of calories in a few hours. Granted, festivities are made for enjoyment, but between the socializing, the music and the energy, it can be all too easy to lose sight of mindful eating.

Besides, mindful eating isn't just another trendy buzzword of the wellness industry—it's a crucial component of overall health, from the portions on your plate to the feelings you have about food.

One of the best ways to understand mindful eating is to break down the meaning of "mindfulness." According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, mindfulness is "the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis." In short, mindfulness is noticing what is happening as it's happening in a nonjudgmental manner.

Mindful eating takes this concept and applies it to food. When you eat in the moment, you are being fully present with your meal as you cook, serve and eat it. Mindful eating also involves recognizing your emotional and physical responses as you eat. Every bite comes down to being fully present in the experience of eating.

"Often, we are on auto-pilot during our day-to-day routine," explains Kerry Clifford, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. "But paying more attention to the things [we] eat can put [us] on a healthier track."

With this type of awareness, you create the opportunity to control your eating behaviors. In turn, you'll be more likely to align your lifestyle and habits with your health and wellness goals.

Admittedly, when you've got weddings and barbecues on the menu, it can be difficult to find the mental space to practice mindful eating. With the right approach, though, it is possible to exercise basic principles as you celebrate and mingle.  

How Social Gatherings Challenge Mindful Eating

From enticing dessert tables to sugary punch bowls, social gatherings are notorious for putting mindfulness to the test. That's because we eat more when we're other people. In psychology, this phenomenon is called the "social facilitation of eating." Experts use this term to describe the way the presence of others affects our eating behavior.

A 2017 article in Physiology & Behavior shares that we eat more when we're with company because it enables social bonding. Specifically, the act of eating and talking creates a positive atmosphere. And unless you're chatting with that great aunt, these experiences typically elicit joy and relaxation, which only fuels the tendency to keep eating.

It's all thanks to endorphins, the "feel good" hormones typically associated with a runner's high. According to a 2017 article in Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, eating activates our endorphin systems, much like laughing and dancing. This release of endorphins promotes a sense of closeness with the people we're enjoying the activity with, which releases even more endorphins. Basically, we eat more at parties because it makes our brains happy.

We know overindulgence such as this can disrupt an otherwise healthy diet and strict eating rules can take the fun out of food, so how can one find balance?

How to Practice Mindful Eating at Parties

When you're at a social function, thinking about mindful eating might feel like an extra task. But with these simple tips, you can allow room for awareness and presence to naturally flourish, while still enjoying the gathering.

As with any lifestyle practice, it's best to adopt these tips gradually, aiming for small change. Over time, it will become second nature for mindful eating to be your plus-one at every event.

1. Eat Before You Leave

One of the simplest ways to control your appetite at a party is to take charge before you even arrive.
Clifford points out that people often think, "I'm going to a party where I'll eat a lot, so I won't eat until I get there." But when you show up with this mindset—and an empty stomach—you create the opportunity for ravenous eating.

To offset the temptation, Clifford suggests eating a snack with protein and fiber before you leave the house. These nutrients are extremely filling, so you'll feel satiated for a long time.

"Consider almonds, string cheese with grapes, or some plantain chips with guacamole," Clifford recommends. "Keeping yourself well-fed before the event will prevent you from [mindlessly] grazing throughout the gathering."

2. Bring the Snacks

It's tricky to attend a party when you don't know what's on the menu. Plus, depending on the host or event, you might already expect a variety of calorie-laden sweets and dishes, like your Uncle Tom's "famous" tuna casserole.

Clifford suggests offering to bring a healthy appetizer like a veggie tray with hummus, olives or guacamole to the gathering. By contributing nutritious options to the party, you'll be able to enjoy both healthy and not-so-healthy foods. Plus, showing up with a dish, you're showing your thanks to the host for their hospitality.

Obviously, when it comes to events like weddings, this isn't the most appropriate move. In these situations, eating a pre-party snack or making special requests (if allowed) will make all the difference.

3. Mingle Away from Food

Often, hosts serve food buffet-style so guests can fill up as they please. And while this makes it easy to personalize your meal, the open format of a buffet also makes it easy to thoughtlessly graze as you chat.

The solution: Walk away. Invite the other person to sit elsewhere so you can properly catch up and enjoy your food. By taking a second to re-locate yourself and your companion, you can avoid mindlessly refilling your plate as you mingle.
4. Eat Slowly

Thanks to the high energy of social gatherings, it can be tempting to nosh on hors d'oeuvres as quickly as the champagne flows. But when you take the time to chew and eat slowly, you'll have more control over your eating behaviors.

According to a study featured in the journal Cell Metabolism, when you eat food, your gut releases satiety hormones like peptide YY and glucagon-like peptide-1. These hormones reduce your appetite by telling your brain that it's time to stop eating. They also work to decrease ghrelin, commonly known as the "hunger hormone."

The catch? It takes about 20 minutes for these signals to reach your brain. When you eat slowly, you'll give it enough time to receive these hormonal messages.

While you're at it, use this time to truly savor the food. Pay attention to the flavor, texture and aroma. Notice how you feel. With these simple check-ins, you'll automatically be more in tune with the food you're eating.

5. Drink Water

We all know staying hydrated is vital whether you're lounging at home or sweating in spin class, but when it comes to social gatherings, drinking water can completely transform your eating behaviors throughout the event. Water increases the feeling of fullness and helps reduce food intake, according to the journal Obesity. Plus, dehydration can mask itself as hunger, so try sipping on H2O before and during the party. If you're truly hungry, you'll still feel the hunger after drinking water.

For many people, eating at parties is also a habit born out of nerves. Grabbing and eating food gives them something to do with their hands while making small talk or standing alone between conversations. If that's the case, holding and drinking a glass of water can act as a stand-in for those jalapeño poppers you can't stop popping.

Clifford suggests alternating between water and alcoholic drinks. Not only will this help you stay mindful, but you'll be able to avoid a wretched hangover, too.

6. Indulge Selectively

It might sound counterintuitive, but allowing yourself to enjoy your favorite treats will keep your cravings in check.
A 2017 study in Frontiers of Psychology found that people who strictly avoid the foods they crave develop a greater craving for that food. Specifically, the study included 39 participants who displayed chocolate cravings, as determined by a food questionnaire. For the study, the participants weren't allowed to eat chocolate for two weeks. After a series of surveys, the researchers discovered that the two-week stint of chocolate deprivation actually increased their chocolate cravings. The researchers shared that these findings support the notion that, compared to strict dieting rules, flexible eating is more effective for controlling food cravings.

The takeaway here is that if you forbid yourself from having any sweets, you'll be more likely to either eat more dessert than you normally would during the party or go home and binge sugar because you felt deprived. By allowing yourself to indulge in a reasonable manner ("I will eat a plate of veggies, then enjoy one item from the dessert table"), you put an end to the fixation while still treating your taste buds.

It will take time to master these habits. There are many factors to consider, including your current eating behaviors and the types of events you attend, but as you repeatedly put these practices to work, you'll eventually find a style of mindful eating that works for you.

At some point, you may experience peer pressure from other people ("You have to try my cake!"). Some might also get offended if you don't taste the food they brought. In these cases, Clifford says that honesty is the best policy.
"Depending on who the people are, consider telling them about your goals," recommends Clifford. "[Tell them] that you would really appreciate their support." You may be surprised at how most people respond.

In the end, eating is multifaceted. It's more than just physical fuel; it's a social, cultural and emotional experience. And when you make the effort to connect with each of these aspects, you'll be able to eat, drink and be merry in the most mindful way possible.