The original intention of this post was simply to tell you about my dinner at Josie’s last night. But since I got two interesting questions/comments on the blog yesterday with regards to restaurant dining and ED recovery (or simply emotional issues surrounding food) I thought I’d highlight them in my post today.

It’s no secret that restaurant dining is one of the most feared and dreaded activities for disordered eaters. My own MO was to avoid it whenever I could by saying I was sick or busy, but there are other common responses. These include:

  1. Going, eating, and purging
  2. Going, picking, and pushing food around on the plate
  3. Going, eating, and feeling tremendous guilt
  4. Going, overeating, and feeling tremendous guilt
  5. Going, under-eating, and feeling frustration that one’s experience couldn’t be more “normal”

I flirted with 2-4 at various times, and I’m sure that many of my readers have, too.

Many women and men with ED histories feel that a joyous return to restaurants is one of the hallmarks of true recovery. I share that feeling, because restaurant dining encapsulates many things I associate with being better: socializing, spontaneity, surrendering control, and appreciating food sensually, rather than analyzing its nutrient content with an electrical scale and a food log.

I don’t quite consider myself a “foodie” of the sort who prefers dining out to dining in: at the end of the day, I find cooking to be far more rewarding than eating out, if only because the experience of making food gives me an intense appreciation of what I’m eating. I also find that I eat more food I like when I cook; part of this, naturally, is because I eat a selective diet.

Nevertheless, I do love a great restaurant meal (preferably a great vegan restaurant meal), and feel that I’ve come to enjoy the restaurant experience without the major emotional hindrances that used to haunt me. Yesterday, one of my readers asked:

Seeing that you eat out quite a bit how do you keep track of the calories, fat etc. I am always afraid to eat out cause I do not know 100% what the actual extra ingredients are even if the food appears to be a healthy choice.

To answer your question, I’d have to point out first that I don’t track my fat, calories, and so on. I don’t have a staunchly anti-food analysis attitude: I think that calorie counting is useful in many contexts, including major weight loss initiatives, weight gain initiatives, and for discovering how a diet might be out of balance (for example, if one seems to be gaining weight mysteriously, it can be useful to see where calories come from; if the answer isn’t clear from that, it may signal a health condition that’s going unnoticed). I think analyzing macronutrient intake (protein, fat, and carbs) can be a good exercise for people who suspect they’re eating too much or too little of one of those groups. But for me–a person who is happy with her eating habits and in good health–I don’t feel that counting and tracking are necessary. Eating out isn’t a departure from a norm in that sense.

What can be a departure is not knowing what goes in my food. I handle this uncertainty in two major ways. First, I tend to seek out high quality restaurant food, and I try not to compromise. I learned early in recovery that forcing myself to eat greasy, conventional, and unrewarding food was not the right way to prove that I was “better”; it only reinforced my fears, and it did nothing to foster a harmonious relationship with food. Since then, I’ve sought out restaurant meals that are tasty and nourishing, and I also try to eat at restaurants that offer organic food and vegan options whenever I can. This way, I support my values as a consumer and my priorities as a diner all at once.

When I can’t eat somewhere that will guarantee me such an experience–for example, if I’m traveling and can’t find a restaurant along those lines, or if I’m not the one choosing where I eat–I simply step back and put the meal into a broader context. This is coping strategy number two, and it’s a biggie: one lousy/greasy/measly restaurant meal won’t kill me. I never compromise on the vegan score when I eat out, which means that sometimes I eat tiny salads for dinner, along with a snack bar in my purse, or I eat a plate of white rice with no seasoning, or vegetables that are greasy. But that’s OK. As long as I manage to to find vegan options, I try to remind myself that the rest is nonessential. Yes, I can be dismayed by bad dining experiences, and I’d like for every meal to be pleasing. But they can’t all be. Once in a while, mediocre food is less important than good company, or going with the flow. I haven’t quite mastered this lesson, but it’s one I’m always mindful of, and being mindful helps me to be part of the world. It’s what allows me to dine with so many non-vegan friends and family, and it’s certainly what got me through years and years of publishing lunches at omni restaurants.

Yesterday, my reader Heather said,

In my past ED-controlled ways, I was so anal about going to a restaurant that was vegan-friendly because it was imperative that I find place with a “substantial meal.” Now, I just tote a LARABAR or fruit/mixed nuts in my purse and focus on the real deal…the amazing friends I’m so lucky to spend time with.

This is a good segue-way to my next thought. On the one hand, Heather is confirming exactly what I just said. On the other, she brings up one of my own personal challenges as a post-ED restaurant goer, which is that I do tend to get panicked if I don’t think I’ll have enough to eat (this is something I also do when I travel, and it accounts for my tendency to carry eight snacks too many). I often order too much food in restaurants; given my appetite, it’s rarely an issue, but I can go overboard. I also know that my anxiety about having enough to eat can be stressful for people who eat with me, who wonder why I needed a double side of this or extra of that. I think I’m better than I used to be; I hope I’ll be even more comfortable in a few years. I remind myself, again, that no single meal makes or breaks us. And if I haven’t got enough to eat at a restaurant, there’s usually a cozy kitchen to come home to.

A few weeks ago, Elizabeth and Jen and I got into an interesting comments section tangent about how, as post-ED women, we’re rarely dismayed by food that’s rich or fatty or considered illicit in some way or another. I don’t freak out about agave syrup in a dessert, or the fat content in a rich, nut-based raw entree. But I do have a hard time with food I don’t enjoy. I think many post-ED women relate. But that’s all the more reason to approach restaurant dining with eagerness: there are so many wonderful restaurants out there, ready to grant you a night of terrific food. If part of recovery is learning to take pleasure in eating again, there’s surely no better moment to do that than in a wonderful dining establishment.

To wit: Josie’s, on the Upper West Side, has long been a favorite of mine. It’s a health-minded restaurant, and features food that’s cooked without excessive fat or salt, and it offers many organic options. But it’s also a tasty restaurant, with vegan and omnivorous options, which means it’s ideal for groups. I go there often with my Mom and her boyfriend, and it’s where we all found ourselves last night. The restaurant offers a sweet potato chickpea puree in lieu of butter, which is how we started our meal (alas, it doesn’t have vegan breads, so I ate mine with a spoon!).

I moved on to veggie juice for my cocktail: carrot, cucumber, celery, ginger:

For my meal, I made a usual selection: the seared tofu salad, minus the tofu. Weird? Maybe, but the tofu at Josie’s isn’t my favorite (too soft, a little too bland), so I usually just ask for double roasted veggies and beans. It comes with half an avocado and tons of greens:

And since my taste for sweet potato had been piqued, I got a side of the roasted sweet potato mash:

Can you tell I was pleased with my food?

That is one happy eater.

Does Josie’s make it easy to dine out as a vegan, and as a woman with a troubled food past? Sure. And not every meal is effortless. But I hope that the two main points of this post–1) be selective and uphold your standards with restaurants when you can, and 2) let go and remember the big picture when you can’t–are helpful to anyone who’s struggling to get out into the world again.

As always, I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts. Right now, it’s back to some of that proverbial “me” time I waited all summer for.


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