Nervous Food and Why It Matters - Christine Kane

We’re coming up on the weekend. After that, we’re coming up on the holidays. It’s time to talk about nervous food.

Nervous food is my name for appetizers. It’s my word for anything people eat when they’re in social situations, and they’re grabbing at food unconsciously. Especially at the beginning of parties when there’s that slightest bit of tension in the air, and everyone is making small talk. No one admits to feeling nervous or out of place. Rarely does anyone say, “Oh God, Laura, who cares about the new car your ex-husband got? Tell me what really brings you joy and what you’re thankful for!” More likely, they pipe in about how much the ex-husband’s car had to cost. Then they eat a few more mushroom caps stuffed with something that looks like Alpo followed by a gulp of wine.

But we’re not here to talk about everyone else and their relationship to nervous food. Let’s talk about you and your relationship to nervous food.

First, let’s be clear: this post is not about diets, or the ludicrous idea of “breaking” them. (If you’re on a diet, then that’s an issue in and of itself. Read some Geneen Roth.)

This post is about unconscious behavior and the social settings where we unwittingly go rampant. It’s about the choice you have to step outside of that behavior.

So, why is this even an issue? Who cares about nervous food and unconscious behavior?

Well, it’s my theory that the more consciousness you bring into every situation – especially the “harmless” settings, like parties or appetizers – then the more awareness you have of yourself and your behaviors in your whole life. The rewards in this are endless.

For instance, years ago at parties, I would watch myself stuff my face with nervous food, drink a little bit of wine, and then blurt out something completely inappropriate or something I wished I’d kept to myself. Or I talked too much. Or any number of unconscious behaviors. Then I’d leave the party thinking, “Who was that?”

Once I began to recognize that I had this tendency to avoid my own anxiety in social situations by covering it up (with food, talking too much, not listening well), I started to observe myself. I treated myself with compassion. And my relationship to these settings has completely shifted. For the most part, I feel peaceful, and I find myself genuinely interested in listening to people. And I gravitate to the smaller groups of folks who are talking about meaningful things.

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about parties and drinking and nervous food. Both of us admitted to feeling discomfort at big parties, and wanting to have deeper connections with people. I let her know a few techniques I use around these situations, and I’d like to share them with you.

Get clear before parties and nervous food

Know yourself. Are you uncomfortable at parties? Do you stuff food in your face without even tasting it? Just start taking your “temperature” about social settings. Are you someone who loves to laugh and talk about anything with anyone? Or do you like to find one or two people and get a little more intense? Do you feel odd or left out? Do you find yourself bragging about things, or getting puffed up, or trying to be “in the know” on the latest gossip? There’s no right answer here. The point of this is to simply get clear and to honor that clarity.

If It’s Not an Absolute Yes, It’s a NO

This is the key phrase in Cheryl Richardson’s excellent book Take Time for Your Life (A must-read. It’s also a great listen.) Most of us say a knee-jerk “yes” to any party or social invitation that comes along without asking ourselves if we really want to go. Saying no doesn’t always mean you’re saying no to the party or the people. It can mean that you are saying “yes” to yourself. Maybe you need to go to bed early. Maybe you need to take a bath and be quiet. Maybe you’ve decided to do some writing over the weekend or you need to confront your own FMS. I’ve said “no” to more social invitations in the past few years than I ever imagined I would. It has made the “yes” parties much more fun and meaningful.

Segment Intend

Prior to any social situation, do some segment intending. (This technique is from the book Ask and It Is Given by Esther and Jerry Hicks.) Before you walk in, simply intend who you will BE and what you will DO during this time, i.e. “I find the people who aren’t drinking heavily. I am a great listener. I don’t eat out of nervousness. I delight in other people’s passions and interests. I have lots of fun without overindulging, etc.”

My husband and I have been doing this for years without knowing we were segment intending. Lots of times before entering social situations, we’ll pause in the car for a second. We hold hands and one of us will remind both of us that we’re here to be present to other people and to be with each other, and to be a “light” for others. We don’t get all mamby-pamby about it and act like we’re there to rescue anyone. We just pause and connect and know. That one moment of pausing can shift everything as we walk to the door of someone’s house or business.

Attract, Don’t Push

I started this little ritual back when I began to attend big music conferences. The energy among artists at music conferences is often one of desperation. (“Pick me! Pick me!”) The exhibit hall is highly charged and the “important” people get inundated with CD’s and requests. I saw this, and I felt that charge in my body the first time I walked into one of those halls. I immediately shifted. I said silently, “Okay. Just send me who I need to meet. I don’t care if it’s for business purposes or just someone who needs a little kindness. Let me attract who I need to attract.” And I had a great time. I saw promoters I’ve worked with and talked about their kids or their lives. I got a distribution deal. I had deep conversations with people and was able to listen to them without looking at their name tag to see if they were important enough to spend time with.

Then I started doing the same thing at parties. Instead of trying to run around and be the perfect social butterfly daughter I was groomed to be, I got still. I now allow conversations to come to me. What tends to happen is that the people who want more intimate conversations are drawn to that part of the room.

Note: If you do this, make sure you don’t do it with a self-righteous attitude: “Look at all these morons at this party. I’m going to just stand here in the corner and see if there’s any evidence of intelligent life in this room.” That’s not it at all. Attracting and allowing are about non-judgment. It’s about keeping yourself in a place of peace.

Actively Listen

Try this. When someone is talking to you, really listen. Make it an activity unto itself. Lots of us get into social settings and we’re so busy thinking of what to say next as this person is talking, that we don’t even really listen to them. We think we’re listening, but we’re not. Try listening deeply and watching as you listen. Watch their expressions. People love to be heard. Conversations, even light conversations, move up a notch when you’re able to listen well.

Your opinions

In one of Marianne Williamson’s lectures, she talked about people walking out of movie theaters and launching right into all of their opinions about the movie. And she said something like, “Who cares what you think?!” It really struck me. Why does my opinion matter so much? At parties especially, it’s so easy to add your opinion to every last thing. Do you really need to toss more opinions and energy into every conversation? Why do you feel that your opinions matter so much anyway? Can you simply just listen to the opinions of others?


Recently I was at a dinner party, and I opted out of drinking wine. I rarely drink anyway, and when I do it’s always in social settings. I wanted to just see how it felt. I had a great time. I observed. I was able to stay present and actively listen and not chomp down the nervous food. I observed the conversations all around me. Not in an aloof way, but in a deep way. I didn’t get triggered by things that typically trigger me. I could just breathe deeply and watch.

Try becoming the observer of yourself. Quietly and non-judgmentally witness yourself grabbing for the nervous food. Watch as you want to blurt, “You liked that movie!?? I hated that movie!” Take a breath instead. Feel all of your own opinions come up without having to make them be known by all who are present. Just observe. It’s kind of fun.

Wake Up and Taste the Nervous Food

Make nervous food less nervous. Actively taste it. It’s the same principle as actively listening. Try to actually taste your food. You’ll probably find that you are drawn to food that’s better for you. And you’ll be able to sense if you are full, and you’ll know when to stop.

Last week, I went to a party and it was my job to bring the nervous food. (The host called it “appetizers.”) I was stumped. I called a friend of mine and said, “I can’t bring the nervous food! I’m opposed to it! It’s like asking Karl Rove to bring the condoms!” But bring it I did. Guacamole. No Alpo and mushrooms. I didn’t tell the hostess about my thoughts on nervous food. You don’t have to either. You can still participate. But just bring a little consciousness to it all so that you can enjoy the parties, the holidays, and yes, even Andy Williams shouting about how, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!”

  • Michelle

    I have always had trouble EATING at parties. I get so nervous that I swallow tons of air and then have a huge gas bubble to deal with. Not pretty. I now eat BEFORE the party and I intend peace and calm before I walk in the door. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Todd Schafer

    That part about really listening when you’re in a social situation can never be repeated enough.
    I wholeheartedly agree, yet I find myself racing to say something more profound than what I’m hearing.
    Thanks for the reinforcement

  • christine

    Yes, Susanne… that’s the big one. They don’t have to get it. Only you do. And when you get clear, they will follow suit. (or just fall away!)

  • Susanne

    Thank you. That was prompt! I’ll practice saying “in order to honour my needs” immediately. (I just have to translate that into German…) We’re clear about what we do and what we don’t, we just feel the need to have people understand that it’s not about them. And that may be the problem. Because they don’t have to.

  • christine

    Hello Susanne, I may just do a post on this topic alone. However, the first thing I want to point out is that saying no is harder if you have a need for people to approve of you, agree with you, or give you permission. You have to get clear in yourself that you’re saying no in order to honor your own needs. I also don’t like the use of the word “Sorry.” It’s as if you’re apologizing for yourself. You don’t have to do that! Cheryl Richardson suggests using the phrase, “In order to honor my needs” or “In order to honor our relationship” … and then say the thing you have chosen to do. You’ll let go of the muggles as soon as you stop hoping they’ll let you go! There’s a learning curve with this. For a while, it’ll be awkward. Then you’ll get to where it’s simply no big deal to say no, and that there’s no question that you ONLY do the things that bring you joy… because otherwise, you don’t serve anyone or anything if you don’t want to be there. Hope that helps a little! Thanks for aksing! It’s a big topic for lots of people.

  • Susanne

    Wow. These comments deserve comments of theor own. But right now I’m writing because I have a question not about the nervous food (which I don’t do anymore), but about how to explain to your friends that you don’t want to go the party. I don’t lie, though it often seems to be the easiest way out, (“Sorry, but we can’t make it, we already have something planned on Saturday.”), we tried telling the truth (“Sorry, but right now it is more important to me to take the time to work on my musci and when I go to a party it just throws my whole weekend off.”), but somehow telling the truth only leads people to question us and then we find ourselves deep in a debate, defending our way of life. Part of the problem is that we spend a lot of time with “muggles”.

    So, how do you tell someone that though you like them and their friends you’d rather spend your time being on your own? (“You know, I’m an Artist. I am peculiar that way.”)

  • Caren

    Thank you for your kind and hopeful words, Barb. I hope you have a gratitude-filled Thanksgiving! We all have much to be grateful for.

    Gassho ~

  • barb

    hey caren and fellow readers, I have been in your shoes and want to let you know that you will make it thru recovery. I had a huge prolem with drinking to be “social”, “liked” and all those other things. I played all the games, limiting yourself to 2-3 drinks, after 3 I lost count, drinking non alcohol beer, etc. One day i came home and said “I need a drink” and popped open one of the nonalcoholic beers, took a couple of sips and asked myself ” who are you kidding” I poured all of them down the drain. after my best friend died due to car wreck, I tried getting drunk to shut down my mind, couldn’t do it. sent several bottles of vino down the drain. as to what i do about parties, I am not a party person and go to only one party/year, friends have a big potluck on turkey day for folks who don’t go home or other signigicant place. after a bit, no one will care that you don’t drink and to Heck with them if they do. stay strong and if you must celebrate use sparkling cider. My friend s always have it for those who don’t drink. also watch out for cough meds. took one once and wondered why I felt woozy and now despite the pharmists questioning stare, I just tell them I don’t do alcohol. look for pediatric cough meds. sorry this is so long but I hope those of you battling any addiction will know it can be done. barb

  • christine

    I’m here! I’m here! I’ve gotten behind on my comments!

    Kblaney, thanks for putting me on the Live Journal site. I’m not sure at all what it is, but I’ll go check it out! and thanks for your thoughts on nervous food! I’m glad the blog helped!

    Caren, Wow. That was a blog in and of itself! (and i laughed out loud a few times too!) Great insights. thanks much for adding all of that. Silence is wonderful… and scary too!

    Thanks Laurie! and remember, you really do have permission to NOT go to some of those parties you don’t like!

    Hi Dharmashanti, I’m glad this helped. And you’re right… the intent behind the eating is SO much more important than the WHAT of eating. In one of my old posts (it was actually about building a relationship with money) I wrote about recovering from bulimia and how you have to develop a relationship with food… that was the biggest and best thing (and hardest) about working through that addiction. It’s good to read your thoughts on this very thing…

  • Dharmashanti

    I really appreciate your perspective on this. I needed to “hear” it. I’m learning to bring more consciousness to my attitudes and actions around food. I’ve realized that the problem isn’t what I eat or how much or how often. The issue with me is why.

    A few weeks back, I made a conscious choice not to use food as a drug or entertainment or a reward. The only purpose that food serves for me is to provide my body the nutrients it needs (which doesn’t take much). Beyond that, food is just like alcohol to me. And I’ve been sober 10 years now. Whether it’s a Snickers or a Schmirnoff’s doesn’t matter. Both can kill me.

    Thanks again.

  • Laurie

    Hi Christine – I loved this post and I’m going to refer back to it before I head off for each Christmas party – gawd, do I hate parties! You’ve offered a lot of wisdom here and in the post about TV – I think that we are sympatico in many ways. Thanks!

  • Caren

    When I first read this post, I dismissed it as not being for me — I mean, I’m only a few steps away from “Christmas party” meaning bringing the Jack Daniels in along *with* the 12-pack, instead of leaving it in the car for you and your closest buds. So, small talk and canapes aren’t a real big part of my holiday experience. Since I’ve gotten into recovery, though, and have expanded my social circle, (oh! You mean shots of tequila and getting naked in inappropriate places aren’t part of every social gathering?) I do get together with close friends (sober, with clothing), and I’ve noticed a tendency to “fill the space” with talk. If there’s a moment of silence, my mind starts spinning – WHAT can I talk about? What should I bring up? It’s almost like — I don’t want to just make small talk, and it’s not really the time for sharing about deep issues… what can I say? And I have to remember it’s OK to not say anything. I love the three questions to ask, with the Buddhist practice of “right speech”: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Not everyone is comfortable with sitting in silence, so sometimes I guess the kind thing to do is to ask a question, but sometimes it’s OK to just sit. Last week, I led a healing drum circle here in Charlotte. At one point, just one other person was there, and we chatted a bit between the times we were drumming. One of those times, though, we just sat in silence together. It was very powerful, and I actually felt closer to her after that than I did after learning her grandchildren were coming for Thanksgiving. I was also able to intuitively sense some things she was dealing with, and afterwards I talked with her briefly about that, and it was very healing for her. That wouldn’t have happened if we had continued chatting. Silence made space for that connection.

    I do have experience from the other side of the bar, too, as during the past few holiday seasons I’ve bartended and served at different holiday parties. It has been RARE that anyone at the party actually acknowledges me as a person. It might be the setting – most of that work is at country clubs, and I guess a part of that culture is to not acknowledge “the help”. But I’m always appreciative of eye contact and momentary connection as I hand people their chardonnay. Something for you party-goin’ folks to consider…

    peace –

  • Mags

    Hi Christine – loved the post, and the term “nervous food”! I think the key for me lies in your/Cheryl’s advice about “if it’s not an absolute yes, then it’s a no” – I tend to focus on the nervous food when I don’t really want to be at the party. You mentioned in one of your earlier posts (about bulimia I think) that stuffing down food can be seen as stuffing down (suppressing) emotions. I know for me at least, this is exactly what I’m feeling when I’m at a party where I don’t really want to be – I try to suppress those uncomfortable emotions by eating compulsively!

    Cheers, Mags

  • kblaney

    Hi Christine, I am enjoying your blog entries. I wanted to tell you that I set up a RSS feed on the LiveJournal site here: – you have 11 readers there so far, but I thought you might want to know about it, and possibly announce it, since LiveJournal does NOT have an effective search machine for RSS feeds.

    [LiveJournal is a popular site for personal blogs.]

    In terms of this post, I like the term “nervous food”; I personally tend to really enjoy the spread since I love to graze when I eat and experience many different tastes. However, I tend to eat too much a) because it’s there and b) because I really don’t often connect at parties like I would like to. I like small gatherings where I know almost everyone, or at the very least parties where I can catch up with a few long-lost friends. I will give some thought to what you said about “getting clear” before social gatherings. I think that would help me enjoy them more, no matter what they turn out to be.

  • Dblwyo

    My bad – there is no technology for monitoring individual actions though with the new RFID tags and biometric monitors we’re working on it. Of course integrating it into the blog is another challenge ๐Ÿ™‚ !

    BLUSH is what one does when victim of fulsome, whole-hearted complements. Unless of course one is too used to them and/or being worshipped as by one’s acolytes. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Domo Sensei.

  • christine

    Hi Dave, I”m not sure what a blushmeter is…??? I haven’t kept up with all the bloggy things like that. But thanks for the kind words regardless! Thanks, too, for the suggestions and other thoughts. I’ll go check out that site. As far as the “bigger” stuff… I wrote a little bit about that in a few of my blogs like this one… If you look at the archives, you’ll see a few that contain some of that kind of thing. But really, big or small…it’s all the same thing. Big things only FEEL bigger, it seems. It’s about our perception of them. Being a former drama queen, I find that the best things ARE the small things. And the small things add up to the big things. (You know, you want to become a songwriter… so you have to sit down with your guitar everyday for a while. Not a big thing. But then, eventually, you could win a grammy. That’s perceived as a big thing. (But it’s kind of not on some level.) Then, after you win your grammy, you sit down with your guitar again.)

    And yes, Rilke’s Letters were a huge inspiration to me when I was getting started…

  • Dblwyo

    Another great post. BtW- does your site have a blushmeter – needs one because this post and especially the last one were really useful to me. Enjoyed & learned from all of them of course, including the extensive back-tracking, collating from the archieves. But these caught me just write because they provide practical, down-to-earth and workable advice for arresting unconscious choice-making, relaxing and then getting to make good, ‘what-you-need-to-do-now’ decisions. While relaxing and being patient. And all in simple terms, plain English etc. For a youngster you sure got some smarts (that’s wisdom and insight translated) on you lady ๐Ÿ™‚ (if you need new voices in your head try that one – the sound of one blog-reader applauding !)

    This week was able to re-start my mediation, pilates, evening reading and get a better work schedule going using your tools. Been a very productive week for me. Someday, if you haven’t it’d be interesting, to know how you got going on the big stuff (arresting the bulemia and sticking to your guns on your music) but it sounds like starting with the little day-to-day stuff is good but also training for the majors ?

    Having spent a lot of time in business having to attend conferences and parties, etc. might turn it around, or add to the get grounded advice, a little by also suggesting that another thing to help is to think about the people you’ll meet and the new things you’ll learn. When I learned to quit worrying about what the party was going to do to me and started looking forward to what we’d do for each other it gets much more interesting.

    It’d be interesting to try and apply some of your insight to bigger problems and I’d love to hear (btw – that takes nothing away from all the folks here starting with me who are wrestling with all these challenges). But have you looked at Sandbox ? [ ]. It’s a MilBlog set up for our troops on Slate and boy are they wrestling with some tough ones. Recent entries are the gal who’s husband is getting shipped back for another tour, the gal on the airbase wrestling with depression and looking for brightsides in a tomato plant struggling to grow in the desert or the Sgt. on patrol who went thru a god-awful street fight. I have not idea what to say to these people but would sure like to.

    If nothing else maybe as a songwriter you’d find a whole new set of materials.


    p.s. – have you seen Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” ? Might be right up your alley.

  • christine

    Hello elizabethgirl… I love Christmas carols! (well, except for the frenetic ones that make me jumpy, and the ones that have gotten so modernized that they don’t sound like Christmas anymore.)ฌ† I just don’t like them before Thanksgiving because it feels like we are all being pushed into consumerism.

    My all-time favorite Christmas record is Harry Belafonte’s.

  • elizabethgirl


    I can’t help but feeling some animosity on your part towards Christmas carols. Is it the music? Lyrics? That some people/corporate entities misuse them to drive a commercial frenzy?

    I personally have been playing Christmas music for a while because, yes, I DO feel the spirit of the season. While I choose something like Winter Solstice or Live at the Vatican instead of Rudolph and Frosty, I question whether they, and other more mainstream carols, deserve such off-hand dismissal.