I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been out to lunch or dinner in the past five years: exactly five. And four of those five times have happened in the last six months. Why did I stay away from going out to eat for so long? I feel ready to let that shift a little, so before the times start multiplying exponentially (if they ever do), I’d like to share with you what my process has been and how it’s kept me on track with how I need to eat. I’m not recommending everyone do as I have done, I’m only sharing what I’ve chosen and how it’s worked for me, in case any part of it might be helpful when the decision to eat out or not to eat out presents a challenge.
It’s not that I couldn’t have gone. In fact, before eating very low fat and plant-based, going out to lunch or occasional dinner with a friend was at the hub of my social life. I don’t have to eat out while working, or don’t have growing kids I am picking up or dropping off, and I certainly do not travel frequently. So why would I stop what at first glance seems like the “only thing left” in terms of a doable social outing?
As you may remember from my post The Poetry of Simple Plant-Based Hors D’Oeurves, the rule I made when I started eating like this was “I am no longer cooking anything for anyone that I can’t eat myself.” I adopted this rule after reading a post on the Swank forum in response to a woman wringing her hands about how stressed out she was to have to cook separate meals for everyone in her family. Another woman replied, “You are not a short order cook. My family eats what I make, and if they want something else, they have to make it themselves.” Well, goodness. No hearts and flowers dotting the I’s and crossings the t’s in that comment. But it stayed with me. How often had I compromised myself by going out of my way to make what I thought were the required treats, telling myself that since I could not drive Mike around, teach him to drive, or do more active things with him, the least I could do is wow him with dessert. Or whatever it was that made me feel like I was still a “good Mom” because I made it (oh our twisted logic where food is concerned).
So when I started eating low fat and plant-based entirely, I set out to make oil free healthy vegan food that was as tasty as possible. Instead of going out to lunch with friends, I’d invite them over to try stuff with me. Though at first some friends were disappointed I would not go out for a tete a tete over lunch any more, they did enjoy the food they ate when they came over. And they could easily see that I was doing better, so I didn’t really get any arguments.
Even though I didn’t eat out, my outings still centered around food. Before I got Romeo and improved enough to simply take a walk a mile or more through the park or along the creek, I’d walk several times a week to the co-op (a round trip of less than half a mile), just to check out ingredients, learn things, or buy something special for a new dish I wanted to try. I made it my “job” to do this. I felt certain that if I kept myself interested as a cook and an eater within these limits, and enchanted others in the process, I would soon dance on those limitations, and not want to cheat at all. That proved to be so true I developed an almost ridiculous aversion to even thinking about eating out, because I was afraid to be dissatisfied or to be forced to “cheat” if something was not up to my new standards.
The phrase “forced to cheat” harkens back to a time in my childhood when, after losing the weight I wrote about in my post, The Power of the Plateau, my Dad, who did not want to push his way back through a hot, close crowd at a play in the park to get back to our car for my apple, made me eat a half box of Cracker Jacks in order to quell my light-headedness. From a parental point of view, he was hot, tired and probably exasperated at the stream of demands he was getting from all sides. Maybe he had already gone back to the car once. From my point of view, we were standing in a crowd of grown-ups whose heads I could not see over, so for the most part I could only hear the play, and I was tired, light-headed and hungry. I ate the Cracker Jacks, but felt utterly defeated as I choked them down. I felt he did not understand how important it was for me NOT to munch my way down that slippery slope. To him, my new found will power was a trouble and an inconvenience. The foundation of my built-in conflict about that power I had acquired was poured. Up till then I had been praised for it. But I now felt deeply that it was also a power that would not always accommodate the wishes of those I often needed—and wanted—to please.
On a lighter note, my inner cheap skate couldn’t see paying for a plain potato at a restaurant when I could make a fantastic one at home. In this respect, I am kind of like my grandmother, who would frequently say, in her distinctive French Canadian idiom-in-translation, “It tastes better home.” But in 2011, there came that opportunity for one of those beautiful exceptions to the usual rule. Susan Voisin, now my host here at Fat Free Vegan, was traveling to Portland for a vegan food bloggers conference. Mike and Kelly had just moved into their own apartment there, after sharing a house with 3 other people for a couple of years. And the Mom of one of Mike’s childhood friends who also now lives in Portland, offered to drive me and Romeo over, and visit her own son in the bargain.
This was be a special occasion on many counts: first time traveling to Portland to see Mike without Mike (I’d only gone one other time since he moved when we made the trip to California to see my Dad, but that will be another story.). First time meeting Susan in person (luckily it turned out not to be the only time). First time navigating in a big city with Romeo as my service dog. And first time that it felt like it would be fun—and even easier—with Susan’s busy schedule—for us to take her out to one of the many vegan restaurants in Portland.
After reading a McDougall newsletter in which Mary recreated recipes for “bowls” they had had at Blossoming Lotus while visiting Portland as part of Dr. McDougall’s MS Study, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. “I could eat one of those,” I thought. No problem. And so for weeks I “planned” on going there.
Susan wisely suggested we make reservations ahead of time, since there would be so many extra (hungry!) vegans going out to dinner after the conference. That was a really good call. Before we went, Kelly and I looked on the Blossoming Lotus web site, only to discover that the “bowls” were on the lunch menu. Still, some of the dinner items looked like I might be able to order them and maybe ask for no oil.
When we got there, that proved harder than we had anticipated. The waiter informed us that everything is prepared ahead of time, so it’s not really doable to make one serving of something without oil, without knowing ahead of time. But all was not lost. When the waiter saw I was quite serious (perhaps the presence of my service dog helped in convincing him this was indeed a serious health issue for me), he took my need to eat low fat and without oil as a challenge and we went over the menu as if it were a puzzle waiting to show us the right pieces. He suggested a large “green goddess” salad of mixed greens, roasted garlic, and quinoa that was substantial and could be served plain. That sounded good to me. And he also offered to go back to the kitchen and find out which, if any, of the dressings were made without oil. It turned out there was an avocado ranch dressing made with no oil. As a treat I ordered that on the side. And I also ordered a type of drink that had greens, green apple and ginger whirred up in it, which was heavenly on a hot summer evening. I had a wonderful time, and did not stray one bit in any essential way from how I am accustomed to eating. I experienced no heightened inflammation, or pain, or digestive distress as a result of this meal.
I enjoyed the dinner conversation, perhaps even more than all the millions of times I’ve thought I was enjoying myself while eating out. Because what was absent was this underlying anxiety that I would be treating myself to something that would hurt me. Or if I was doing that, the dealing with the onset of the actual discomfort, even as I was eating.
Earlier that summer I had had this ironic insight: that as much as I’ve loved going out to eat as a means of social connection all my life, I could think of only ONE dinner that I ever remember having out that did not give me some sort of negative digestive consequences. That I had always “paid” for all my dinner and lunch and brunch dates with such affliction, many many more times than I can remember, and how that had simply been part of the experience I had not questioned or even fully recognized.
Here is something I wrote about that in the summer of 2011, before going to Portland and eating out:
“I have been trying to think of the fun times I used to have going out to eat. Surprisingly, what’s coming to me is how upset my stomach was almost all the time, how badly I digested things, even if loved the taste of what I was eating. Countless times I can now remember that feeling in my body. But only one time can I remember having a dinner that actually made me feel better. At Disneyland, of all places. In the “southern” section. Maybe I was 19, and with my family. I certainly remember Mom there. And me not feeling all that well, tired. And having a dinner of baked filet of sole in no sauce, rice, and green beans, I think it was. Or maybe broccoli. It was the fish, the rice and a green vegetable. And that it had been out of line with what others were ordering. And more expensive. So I had worried about that. But how absolutely good it was, though plain. That my body actually felt better after eating it. And how pleased I was with that. Now the fish wouldn’t sit well with me. But then it did. Probably fish was generally less contaminated at that time, too. At any rate, this means there is good reason not to enjoy going out to dinner. To be social while in digestive distress, and to ignore or override it to be social just is not worth it to me anymore. And seems to have become a kind of matter of life and death. So no, not ready for dinner dates, nor do I miss them. Strange, but true. “
There are a few other happy exceptions to my hard nosed rule.When I go to the occasional potluck, I always bring my own food, and a “legal” dessert I can make for everyone else. I have a great time visiting and munching on my own stuff. Not once do I get a twinge of pain or experience the stress of whether I should eat something or not, or have to pay later because I did.
Also in the last couple of years, one of my closest, long time friends has pretty much adopted this way of eating. We usually get together twice a month for the new and full moons, and that can sometimes include dinner. We’re usually over here ( I have a masonry stove it’s nice to sit in front of in winter), but when I do go to her house I know I don’t have to tote my own food. It is lovely she has always been willing to accommodate my diet, even before she decided to really try eating this way herself.
And there’s also my friend Clark. When he still lived in Moscow he made me some wonderful sushi if I went to his place. And it was full of things I can eat without worry. Last February, before moving he brought us some “take out” sushi that also accommodated my rules, though our home-made is more green and healthy. So that was almost like going out to dinner, and allowed his children to have theirs with fish, and still be game tp try my Soy Free Midwinter Miso Soup in the bargain, which, I am happy to say, was a big hit. Everyone was happy and had stretched their envelopes a bit.
I know many people on the internet who cook dual meals and go out to eat frequently and do fine with both, so I am not making a universal recommendation. But not doing that, and not eating out is a significant part of what’s kept me on track for such a long time. Now I know I could go out, and be fine. But I don’t have to. Sometimes I just sit out on the patio of a restaurant in summer with friends who are eating, and visit with them while they wait for dinner. Then Romeo and I go home and eat. Most importantly, other activities have become my points of social connection. Poetry night. Trips to the you-pick flower farm. An occasional concert or lecture or movie. My daily walks with Romeo, on which I’ve met 3 fabulous new people I now call friends, and many others just passing through the park. I now enjoy social activities with others not centered around food. Has the long sabbatical from eating out helped bring that transformation about? I think it might have. At least in my case. It helps me understand from my own point of experience the significance of why Dr. McDougall says that he and Mary rarely eat out. And that not eating out as a means of social connection has, over time, actually broadened, rather than narrowed, my social options.
Once I felt comfortable “dancing” on these limitations, I’ve gradually kicked up my “eating out feet” a bit. Last Spring I had lunch with another woman I know who has MS at the Co-op Deli. I ate from the salad bar, and brought my own home-made salad dressing. I learned that works fine, and next time I won’t be shy about how much salad fixings I pile into my bowl.
When I returned to Portland this summer (which you can read about in the post Portland: Everything Came Up Roses), I ate out twice. I had lunch once at the Vida Vegan conference, and Susan and I and our kids went to Canteen for dinner, where I had a Portland bowl and a small “Orange One” smoothie. What I learned at the conference lunch was not to put something that looks like red quinoa on my plate without my glasses on. Whatever it was had too much salt and probably some soy in it. But luckily there wasn’t much, and everything else–cooked quinoa, salad, black beans and actual salsa–was perfectly legal and very filling. And I was not shy about putting a lot of it on my plate.
At our dinner at Canteen, I asked for the hazelnuts, tempeh and sauce “on the side.” This way I was able to control how much sauce and nuts I chose to eat, and my son (and Romeo) were happy to eat the “extra” tempeh. When it came time for dessert, everyone was trying out the fabulous raw cashew cheese cake. Since I felt a little hungry still, but knew the “cheesecake” (which also had a considerable amount of chocolate) would be a bad idea for me, I asked instead for a side of steamed kale. I still had sauce from my Portland bowl left, and so I dipped my fork tines in the sauce, and then I’d pitch a forkful of kale onto the sauce-glazed tines. It was absolutely delicious, and I never used up all the sauce. I was pleased and surprised to find I felt full and stabilized in a way I know I wouldn’t have if I’d even tasted the cheesecake. Which is a good thing, because afterwards when I discovered I’d lost my glasses and we had to retrace our every step back to the restaurant, I was not experiencing a sugar or chocolate crash that would have made me a basket case.
The most recent time I’ve gone out to eat was a couple of weekends ago. I met a good friend and her husband and another couple at the Mexican restaurant downtown. They have an outdoor dog-friendly patio, and we sat outside so their dog, who is not a service dog, could also join us. I had assumed I might be able to get whole cooked beans fat free, but something told me to stop by and check the morning of our dinner. I was told everything, even the rice, was cooked with oil. But the staff and I put our heads together and decided I could order a large salad with extra tomato, red onion and cilantro, with a side of guacamole and extra lime slices, and one of corn tortillas. It was delicious and I was really full. I even had a cocktail, a “virgin” marguarita, made with fresh orange and lime juice and fresh strawberries, while my friends had beers or conventional marguaritas. The evening was a success. I learned that it pays to ask ahead of time, and that I can actually be happy and full with what seems like a very light dinner. (The other thing I did that helped was to eat about a third of a sweet potato before we left the house. That ended up being a smart move, since my friend, who is in charge of a world renown vet clinic, was delayed, and so I wasn’t tempted to snack on tortilla chips while we waited to order.)
Over the years of eating low fat, whole plant foods, the tastes of simple food and the simple food itself havebecome more than enough. I recently discovered this at a memorial party for a dear friend of mine I used to teach with who passed away late this Spring. I brought Susan’s Kale and Quinoa Salad with Black Beans to the large gathering, but I also discovered amidst the barbequed ribs and cheese and oil-marinated vegetables there were watermelon slices and plain, fresh corn on the cob. I like to think my friend made sure I had something great to eat that was right up my alley. Even though he didn’t eat the way I do, he always cheered me on in my choices, and became an avid reader of this blog right up until the last week of his life. These simple whole foods, the salad doused with fresh lime, the crushed avocado, the corn, the watermelon, and the freshly made summer drink are all what most people would think of as “not having enough protein.” But I was plenty satisfied eating such fare on these hot evenings, and suffered no digestive issues. I felt clear, happy, energetic, and surprisingly full. Another myth busted by the beauty of direct experience.
Who knew such limitations can bring an entirely unanticipated and surprising sense of freedom? But they have. And next time someone asks me to lunch, I just might say “pencil me in.”