Most of us can’t avoid eating with others and may harbor beliefs and feelings which negatively affect the experience. Whether we’re sharing a meal with family or friends, our history of and reaction to social eating can produce an enjoyable time or complete dysregulation of appetite. Understanding our responses to people-and-food situations can help adjust our perspective and make social eating occasions more comfortable.

How do you feel when you know you’re going to be eating with people? Do you immediately feel excited about catching up with old chums or family members or are you filled with anxiety about food? If you don’t eat out much, do you find that scheduling dinner dates is difficult because you’re torn between enjoying social contact and fearing eating too much or “the wrong thing? No matter what your anxieties, you can address your distress beforehand by reframing irrational beliefs and practicing self-soothing behaviors. For example, if you believe, “I always overeat when I catch a bite with Jane or Mom,” you probably will. How ‘bout making that, “I am comfortable and satisfied eating with Jane or Mom,” or “I feel fine dining with Jane or Mom”?

Can you remain your own person making food choices with friends or family? Are you okay ordering a chicken sandwich when they’re having a salad or vice versa? Do you feel comfortable ordering dessert when they don’t or not having any if they do? Herd-think often takes over in groups, especially at the dinner table. Do friends or family talk about food, dieting, and weight so much during the meal that nothing else gets discussed? That certainly doesn’t add to pleasure and enjoyment. If so, speak up and firmly request a moratorium on these issues at mealtimes (or, how ‘bout ever?).

When you’re eating with others, where is your focus—on conversation or food? It’s hard to have a double focus, but not impossible. “Normal” eaters do it naturally and you can learn how. Start by alternating between listening and eating, ie, stop eating to listen and tune out a bit when chewing and tasting. Check in with yourself periodically about your enjoyment level and how full or satisfied you are. Keep silently monitoring your appetite.

Do you and friends or family glance at each other’s plates to check out food remains, either to ask for leftovers or to assess if you should eat more or stop? Not a healthy habit. Instead, keep your eyes on your own plate and target your body’s signals for satiation and fullness. Remember, friends and family should be there to help you eat “normally”—although you may occasionally need to remind them of what that means!