Nutrition columnist Carrie Dennett explains how food pushers lurk year-round, but food-centered holidays encourage them. Knowing how to deflect food pushers graciously is a skill worth cultivating.

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Food can be nourishing, comforting, a source of pleasure or a celebration centerpiece. It also can be a catalyst for awkward feelings when someone tries to foist food on us that we’re not hungry for or that we simply don’t wish to eat.

Although food pushers lurk year-round, food-centered holidays encourage them. There’s no reason to eat food you don’t want. That’s true even if you don’t struggle to avoid holiday weight gain.

Food pushers come in two main categories: sharers and saboteurs. Some sharers use food as a way of expressing love and caring. Others may love to cook and enjoy showing off their skill by feeding others. Saboteurs tend to push food, particularly less-healthy food, onto those in their circle whom they perceive as being thinner or healthier than they are.

With the Halloween-to-New Year’s Day food gauntlet imminent, knowing how to deflect food pushers graciously is a skill worth cultivating. Sharers may view acceptance of their food offerings as validation of their feelings or their kitchen prowess, so tread lightly. Ditto for saboteurs, who might escalate their game in the face of rejection.

My strategy starts with a smile and a compliment. “Wow, that looks delicious.” “Mmmm … is that cinnamon?” “Is this your famous chicken casserole?” Remember, most food pushers are trying to be nice.

Next, deflect. “Too bad I’m not hungry right now.” “Wow, I wish I hadn’t just eaten lunch … I’m stuffed!”

If you know they won’t be watching, you can say, “I’ll have some in a little while.” If they offer to wrap some up for you, agree. You might really want it later, or you can toss it. Better to go to waste than to go to your waist.

For repeat-offenders you know and love … like your grandma, develop a custom strategy. If Grandma spoons second helpings onto your plate without asking (“There’s just a little left, finish it up.”), take less for your first helping and/or eat slowly. You can also try “Everything was so delicious! Boy am I full!” That gives you an excuse not to clean your plate twice.

If you know dessert is always served immediately, with no time to digest, eat less of your entree and go light on appetizers.

Strategies that may backfire include telling pushers “Sorry, but I’m on a diet” or “My doctor says I need to watch how much salt I eat.” They may feel like you’re calling their food — or them — unhealthy. They may push even harder with lines like, “Come on, you have to enjoy yourself sometimes.” As if that’s your only chance to enjoy food — or life!

It takes practice to say “no” to good food intentions, but stick with it. When you honor your needs while respecting the feelings of others, everyone wins.

What if you yourself enjoy bringing extra holiday cookies into the office or sharing favorite dishes? Offer graciously, but never push. Think, “I brought in some homemade brownies if you’d like to have one,” instead of “Here, have a brownie!”

Next time: Honoring holiday traditions healthfully.

Carrie Dennett:

Dennett is a graduate student in the nutritional-sciences program at the UW;

her blog is