Depending on where you live and what demographic you’re in, you may already be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. If not, you may be relieved by the news that all adults who want the vaccine will have access to it sooner than expected.

If you’ve been playing it safe (and I hope that you have), one of the activities you’ve likely been avoiding is restaurant dining. Even if you continued to support your favorite restaurants by ordering takeout or delivery, those experiences are not the same as dining in.

As I’ve written about before, any kind of food restriction or deprivation – actual, perceived, or anticipated – can lead to rebound or compensatory eating, sometimes even binging. The research on this is clear, whether you’re talking about self-imposed restriction due to dieting, or restriction and deprivation you have no control over due to things like food insecurity or a famine.

This phenomenon is something I’m seeing right now in some friends and family, as well as a few clients, who find themselves really reveling in the freedom of dining out with also vaccinated friends and family.

This celebratory sense of food freedom is not a “bad” behavior or anything to feel guilty about, but what’s not great is when it leaves you with a serious food hangover. I’ve had clients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) unwittingly trigger their symptoms, and a number of other people end up feeling very uncomfortably full or even a little queasy.

So, what might this mean for you?

You haven’t returned to restaurant dining, but have noticed that the pandemic has affected your food behaviors and your relationship with food

Have you experienced new — or resurfaced — binge-type eating? (I say “binge-type” because any eating that feels out-of-control might be casually called binging, even though it’s not technically binge eating disorder.)

Have you experienced any food restriction? This could be due to compensating for some binge-type eating. It could be due to fears you had about pandemic weight gain. It could be because you were fearful of not having access to favorite foods (whether or not those fears became reality).

Whether you’ve noticed binging behaviors, restrictive behaviors, or both, approach dining out mindfully, and keep curiosity and self-compassion at the ready.

When you sit down and look at the menu, notice any thoughts, feelings and sensations that come up. (Other than hunger and asking yourself, “What looks good?”)

  • Are you feeling anxious that this all might be taken away again, so you better grab what you can, now (aka “Last Supper” syndrome)?
  • Are you having trouble deciding what looks best, so you feel compelled to order more than you could possibly eat without becoming uncomfortably full?

Take a breath, honor the fact that you are feeling the deprivation of the past year, and that what you are experiencing is quite common. You are not alone.

Then, remind yourself that you will have plenty of tasty meals in your future (restaurant meals and at-home meals). This particular meal doesn’t have to be everything. Think about the other aspects of restaurant dining that are satisfying (social interaction, being served, not needing to do dishes). The dining experience is not just about the food.

Note: There’s been an increase in new and re-triggered eating disorders during the pandemic, so if you think this is what you are experiencing, please seek help.

You have returned to dining out, and have experienced feelings of “I need to eat all the things” and/or have eaten to the point of uncomfortable fullness.

Set aside any shame (you didn’t do anything wrong), and get really curious. Did this feel like a one-off? Do you think that your next restaurant outing will be less likely to produce letting-your-hair-down feelings? If you repeatedly feel the compulsion to eat all the things, then you may need some help sorting through this.

It can also be helpful to reflect on what was going before the meal.

  • Did you arrive at the restaurant feeling overly hungry? (That’s almost always a recipe for eating too fast, and past the point of comfortable fullness.)
  • Were you anxious about dining out when the pandemic is still going on, even though you are vaccinated and the restaurant is taking safety precautions?
  • Were you in the throes of “Last Supper” eating? Refer to the section above, as this applies to you, too.
You haven’t returned to dining out, and haven’t noticed any unusual food-related behaviors or feelings during the pandemic.

Odds are that your first dining in experience will be a welcome pleasure and nothing more (well, other than satisfying hunger and your tastebuds). Simply stay mindful as you approach the experience. If nothing else, this will simply allow you to enjoy your meal, and the dining experience, more.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!