By Jessica Goldman Foung, Sodium Girl
First dates are full of anxieties: Which shirt should I wear? Where should we go out? Will we split the bill? Will we get along? Or worse yet, get something in our teeth? But if you’re on a special diet, there’s one more consideration to add to the list: How and when will you tell your date about your food needs?
I won’t pretend that this subject isn’t a big deal. It’s nerve-racking. It’s stressful. And I’ve been there, many times, dancing around the subject as I let my food (that I couldn’t eat) get cold. But eventually, I found that dating on a special diet is not only possible, it’s actually essential to being yourself and being honest. And finding a good partner.
Like everything else with a special diet, though, it took time (and many dates) to figure out how to deal with this new nuance in my life. Being diagnosed with Lupus and kidney disease at 21 years old, I was in my prime dating years just as I started my low-sodium diet. But after being released from a three-month hospitalization, the 21-year-old me was determined to not only remain healthy and strong, but live as normal a life as possible. And that meant learning how to date, with dietary needs. Or to put it in Tim Gunn terms, making it work.
As I re-entered the world of dinners for two, I worried about three main stumbling blocks. One, picking a restaurant where I could eat. Two, ordering in front of said date/stranger and running through the long list of everything I could not eat. And three, having to answer all the questions that would follow -- i.e. the Pandora’s box of reasons for my food needs and my health history.
Simply put, having dietary needs meant immediately putting everything on the table, skipping the pleasantries, and getting down to the real talk, fast. And I feared that it was a quick way to end a relationship instead of start one.
So in the beginning, I did what most people do; I skipped around the subject. I sneakily pushed food that I could not eat around the plate. And worse of all, I even sometimes put myself at risk by eating things on my “do not consume list” and paying for it later with more medicine.
But after a few bad meals (and high blood pressures), I quickly realized that I was doing myself, my date, and most importantly, my body a huge disservice. Yes, bringing up my food needs meant bringing up deeper topics. It meant being more upfront and honest than I would usually choose to be when first meeting someone. But it also forced me to be authentic. To be me. And since when was this a bad thing for dating? If you ask Ms. Manners, I’m sure she’ll agree that it is, in fact, essential.
So let’s fast forward. With a good number of dates under my belt, I changed my tactics and I made my dietary needs a part of that first meeting. I figured, if someone couldn’t handle it, no worries. On to the next one. But if they could, what better indicator of a good teammate for dates (and dinners!) to come? And as for those dating stumbling blocks, I simply knocked them down, one creative solution at a time.
As for concern number one, picking a restaurant, I made a list of places where I knew I could order and eat well. And when picking where to meet, I took charge (a sign of independence). For concern number two, I started using my trusty laminated dining card for a more smooth ordering experience, making my special requests no big deal at all (a sign of ingenuity). And as for concern number three, I stopped shying away from discussing my food needs or my health issues (a sign of strength).
As a result, I not only ate well, but I became more confident with myself and my special diet. Oh, and I met the love of my life, too. A guy who not only didn’t mind my food needs, but found them exciting. He saw the challenges of low-sodium living as a chance to be more creative in the kitchen, be more personal with restaurant chefs, and ultimately be more involved with every morsel we put into our mouths! Not to mention, just be healthier. And he has some advice on this subject as well (see below).
Which brings me to this simple request: this Valentine’s day, make a date -- with a friend, a stranger, or a loved one. And invite your special diet to come along. Practice makes perfect. And the more you make your food needs a part of your meals and your relationships, the better you’ll eat, love, and be.
From the Stud, Himself:
I remember pretty clearly the first time I learned about Jess's dietary restrictions, it happened to be I was trying to ask her out for a date! My first thought was, "Jeez, this is going to be impossible. What am I going to do with this girl?" But I put my thinking cap on and got to work.
Step one was cooking the first meal: Chicken thigh with yellow curry and black pepper, with a side of bok choy drizzled with sesame oil. Boom! I was impressed that with just three simple spices/oils I could create something delicious AND salt free. Suffice to say Jess was also impressed. Since then I have had a taste bud epiphany; I notice far more flavors in my food now that I've cut my salt intake. And while I still enjoy a salty dish once in a while, I could never go back to my heavy handed salt days.
Does accommodating my or other people's food needs ever feel like a nuisance or difficult?
Honestly, there are definitely times I crave salt. Turning around cans and looking at labels is definitely more effort, but with that effort you also are able to think more creatively about what else would make a dish delicious. No salt, try cumin. No canned salsa, make it fresh! While I've found cooking for friends with a dietary restriction more effortful, I've also found it more interesting. Without a doubt it helps break you out of your cooking routine.
Any other advice on involving new friends (and dates) in a special diet?
Over communicate. The worst thing you can do is not tell friends and family exactly what you need. I find that the people who love you the most want to make you something amazing and take pride in that effort. If you feel embarrassed by communicating exactly what your needs are nobody can win! Be transparent and be yourself!
For more from Sodium Girl—including low-sodium recipes—visit her website here.