Strategies and tactics for eating out abstinently

Most OA members are not nuns or monks cloistered away from the world. We have lives that are variously complicated, sociable, compressed, or festive. That means we sometimes, perhaps often, eat out. Whether that means at a sit-down restaurant/function, a take-out place, a holiday party, or grabbing something at the supermarket or corner store, we need strategies and tactics that are portable and flexible. Because no matter how determined we are to plan every single meal we eat, the day will come when life throws us a curveball, and we’ll need to eat out.

So let’s look at a couple general strategies as well as tactics for each of the situations mentioned above.


  1. Trust and rely on our Higher Power: In outside-the-house situations, our addictive mind might tell us that it’s OK to bend the rules to a place where we’ve warped those rules into unrecognizable untruths about our food. We can’t trust our thinking, so we have to turn it over to HP and listen for the intuitive thoughts that will keep us on the beam. Prayer is our number 1 best move.
  2. Check our motives: As the Big Book suggests, we ask ourselves whether we have a good reason to be there. Are we really hoping to indulge our interest in jazzy, sexy foods: fats, salts, maybe flours? Are we seeking volume? Are we trying to rekindle old romantic feelings for food?
  3. Have OA’s tools at the ready: The 9 tools are totally portable thanks to smart phones. We can read literature, make calls, text, write in the form of email, and tell another member what our food will be for the meal.
  4. Remember it’s just one meal: If the worst thing happens and we can’t get something we like that meets our abstinence requirements, we won’t die from eating something we’re not crazy about.
  5. Don’t eat no matter what; no matter what don’t eat: No matter what social awkwardness could result, whether sending a meal back or measuring at the table, we need to be prepared to not eat a substance that will send us into a binge no matter how strange it might seem to others. We can always tell them we have a deadly allergy, because that’s the truth.

Now here’s a few suggestions our members have shared for particular outside-the-house situations.


  1. Steer clear of triggering establishments: If we are asked our opinion on where to eat, we aren’t shy! For example, if we can’t eat pasta or pizza safely, we tell our fellow diners that we don’t want to go to an Italian restaurant!
  2. Check the menu ahead of time: The internet is a wonderful thing for OA members. We can read a menu beforehand, and walk in with a committed plan.
  3. Decide on how much to eat before arrival: Some members commit to eating what’s on their plate and nothing more. Or to only having an entree. Some may order a half portion or decide ahead to eat only half. One of our local members has a “One-third rule” where they leave one-third of the food behind.
  4. Bring a scale: Some members’ diseases lie to them about quantities. They may choose to bring a scale with them to be as honest as possible.
  5. Ask questions: We can’t afford to accidentally ingest our triggering substances (e.g. sugar, flour, salts, fats) or specific trigger foods. We ask waitpersons about ingredients. They’d rather us ask first than send something back.
  6. Have a worst-case scenario: What if a restaurant prepares something in a way you didn’t realize would be non-abstinent for you? Perhaps you can scrape off a sauce or coating. Or you could trade meals with someone else. Or you can simply send it back.


Many of the suggestions for restaurants apply to parties, of course. But many times, parties have a spread rather than a sit-down, a buffet-style smorgasbord of appetizers or even main courses, and this scenario presents its own set of difficulties.

  1. Decide what a serving is: When we’re talking about little plates, this gets shifty, especially for those of us prone to grazing. We can talk with our sponsor about what exactly a serving will mean.
  2. Only eat food that’s on our plate: We don’t eat anything directly from its serving dish, a classic grazing maneuver.
  3. Eat before attending: That way we won’t be hungry, and we eliminate a potential justification for eating.
  4. Arrive late or leave early: Reducing the length of our exposure reduces our risk


Uh oh. We’re running late to an after-work appointment (maybe an OA meeting!) and we just got out of work. By the time the appointment is over and we get home we’ll be ravenous! Classic HALT territory. So we might decide to get something at a store on the way or a take-out place. With both hunger and lateness affecting us, it’s important to make wise decisions.

  1. Take a deep breath: It’s hard to make sound food decisions when our brains are running 100 miles an hour. Before we enter the store or take-out joint, take a big, deep breath or two to clear out the craziness for a moment.
  2. Update our food plan for the day: If we committed something different than this on-the-run meal, we tell our sponsor about the change so that we are still tethered to a source of support and accountability.
  3. Have an emergency backup meal idea: Some members have an emergency back-up plan just for situations like this. A reliable, abstinent, appropriately sized meal they can zip through most any store to get quickly. For example, we might choose to have a piece of fruit, an adequate serving of nuts (often available in bulk or in sleeves with specific amounts), and a bottle of water. Or if a local take-out place has an appropriately sized, abstinent item, we might fall back to it in emergencies.
  4. Pause to read labels: When we are in a major hurry, we might pick up something that seems abstinent at first glance, only to discover later to our horror that it wasn’t. For example, some companies put sugar on dry-roasted peanuts. It pays to take a few seconds to check the ingredients while we are still in the store to avoid disaster after.

There’s lots more ideas for ways to eat out safely and sanely. Restaurants are not opportunities to go all wild-west on our food, nor should we sit in them acting like we’d rather be anywhere else. We let our HP show us how to be in the situation, we listen and engage with others, and we remember that it’s one day at a time.