How to Choose Party Food

how to choose party food

So you got invited to a fancy party.

You know there’s going to be food. Lots of delicious food. Food that tastes amazing and makes you go a little crazy.

Here’s your options:

1) You can eat it all and feel sick and/or guilty later

2) You can restrict yourself and feel deprived and/or binge on cookies later

3) You can eat some of the foods that bring you the most satisfaction and feel awesome later

Option 1 is what people who are mindless eaters do. Mindless eating occurs when you mentally check out or think “**** it” and eat everything you can get your hands on. This often occurs when you are very tired or stressed, have recently been on a diet, or have positive or negative emotional ties to the party or holiday in question. In these situations, it is so easy to just let go of inhibitions, especially if alcohol is involved. Unfortunately, at some point the fun has to come to an end. You may overeat to the point of being nauseous, or feel flushed or hyper because of a mild reaction to specific foods. Or, perhaps you feel just fine physically, but the guilt starts to set in and all the good taste and feelings go out the window. Lastly, there may be physical reactions long after the party, like dehydration, bloating, constipation, or acne. No fun at all!

Option 2 is what people who have food anxiety do. This food anxiety is often related to the fear of gaining weight, or if you have a chronic illness or food allergy that needs attentive nutrition support. People with food anxiety have a game plan. It might be something extreme, like “avoid eating party food at all costs,” but more likely it’s more reasonable, like “eat a healthy meal before you come to the party, just have a little bit of party food, and be sure to exercise extra hard tomorrow.” Many times, people with food anxiety plan their eating schedule for the week around the party, so that they can at least have some of the goodies without ruining their diet or having an illness flare. There are times where option 2 is the best for people with severe illnesses, but if you are just worried about gaining holiday weight, I can promise you that restriction is not helping you. Eventually, your body’s survival mechanisms will kick in and you’ll find yourself deep in a tub of ice cream. Also, it’s really hard to have self-control when you’re hungry. Don’t put yourself in that situation.

Option 3 is what people who have a healthy relationship with food do. Balance doesn’t come from restriction, but rather the conscious choice to include all of your favorite foods in moderation. This choice isn’t always easy, especially if you are accustomed to restriction or mindless eating. However, it is the best way to enjoy a party without guilt or a rumbly tummy. You get the best of both worlds! And I promise you, there’s no way you will gain a pound of fat just from eating moderate amounts of party food. If you gain weight during the holiday season, there are more factors in play.

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I used to alternate between options 1 and 2 for many years, and my anxiety at parties was through the roof!

Now I prefer option 3. I’m able to fully enjoy the party AND the food, converse with other guests, and not stress about how many calories I’m eating or whether something will make me feel bloated.

How do I not panic about party food and just have a good time?


Here’s my strategy, and it can work for you, too!

First of all, I eat well most of the time. By eat well, I mean that I consume 3 meals a day most days, and have additional snacks if I’m hungry for them. These meals vary according to my schedule and taste buds, but usually consist of a fairly even balance of fat, protein, and carbs. I’ve found that I feel best if I eat balanced meals throughout the day, and when I feel my best, I have less anxiety about food.

Secondly, I do NOT intentionally restrict my food intake before or after a party. I had to unlearn that habit after years of pre- or post-party fasts. Let me tell you, life is so much better when you eat on a regular schedule. Because I don’t feel restricted, I have more brain power to make conscious food choices at the party.

Thirdly, I anticipate which foods might be at the party, and think about which foods I’m most looking forward to. When I arrive at the party, I scan the food display to see if there’s anything that looks appetizing. Usually most of it does! Even so, I may choose to eat some foods and not others. How do I choose? I prioritize two things:

  • which of these foods is my favorite?

  • which of these foods will help me feel my best?

This strategy can help you know what to put on your plate.

If you’ve eaten a meal recently and you’re not very hungry, you could have a couple of items, or just a slice of cake. If you arrive hungry, be sure to look for whichever foods make you feel best. Then add other tasty treats to your plate. Usually, party plates are small. This is a good thing, because it means that you can fill up a plate, enjoy it slowly, and then go back for more if you’re still hungry. The smaller size helps you be conscious of what you’re eating and allows more time between servings for your stomach to tell your brain when you’re full.

If you enjoy an alcoholic beverage, have a glass of water before having a second alcoholic drink. This will keep you hydrated and more energized the next day.

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But what about food allergies/sensitivities?

If you have a food allergy, or you know certain foods or food groups aren’t best for your body, then the strategy above will look a little different for you. If it’s a potluck, bring a satisfying dish that you know is safe for you. Have a generous serving of that, and supplement with any other offerings that fit your needs. Or, eat a meal before the party and bring a dessert that you love! For parties that have a fixed menu, contact the host/hostess as early as possible to notify them of your situation and ask for assistance. Offer to bring a dish, provide a recipe, or recommend a caterer that specializes in your allergy.

Ultimately, the party is about people, not food.

So enjoy the food, and remember that you’re there to build relationships. If you struggle with prioritizing food over people, consider working with a therapist to discover and address underlying issues that cause food anxiety. And if you want some professional assistance choosing foods that make you feel best, work with me to find your food intuition.

~ Sarah

Sarah Petty