Refuse Dessert Politely

Dear Helena,
I recently saw someone at a dinner fund-raiser put black pepper on his dessert after one taste, so he wouldn’t be tempted to eat more. Is this acceptable? I also found out a friend had it happen at a dinner party she gave.
—Waste Not, Want Not

Dear Waste Not, Want Not,
Ideally, a dieter should avoid temptation in the first place by simply refusing the peach cobbler or tiramisu. If he finds an unwanted dessert in front of him, he should leave it untouched, or offer it to someone else.

Granted, spoiling your food is a popular dieting technique. According to Internet gossip, celebrity Kim Kardashian keeps her calorie intake down by spritzing hers with Windex. Dr. Stuart Fischer, author of The Park Avenue Diet, says that when he’s served an airline meal, “I always take the little dessert and squash it right away.”

But it’s wrong to waste good food. At an event, if none of the other guests wants a second helping, the dieter could have it boxed up and give it to a homeless person.

It’s also unpleasant for other people to watch someone render his food inedible. As kids, we learn that it’s wrong to make mashed-potato sculptures or otherwise play with our food. For the same reason, a diner should not shower a perfectly good dessert with pepper.

So what should someone do when confronted with unwanted cake? Dr. Melina B. Jampolis, author of The Busy Person’s Guide to Permanent Weight Loss, recommends: “[H]ave cinnamon breath strips in your purse and discreetly put one in your mouth after taking a bite or two. [O]ften getting rid of the taste helps get rid of the craving for more.”

Dieting gurus often recommend that dieters train themselves to meditate on the unpleasant consequences of ingesting forbidden foods. Fischer says, “When you put a chocolate gâteau in front of me, I think about the acne I’m going to be getting … the sugar rush will last for about five minutes … and I’ll have to do approximately 45 minutes of exercise to burn it off.”

The dieter shouldn’t explain his food choices. As Mireille Guiliano, author of The French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook, says, “Diets are boring and so are people talking about them.” Hearing about someone’s diet may make other guests feel guilty and depressed. Peppering one’s food also draws attention to the diet—another reason such behavior is wrong.

Even if someone should happen to question why a dieter hasn’t touched his cake, he should not launch into a lecture about rising rates of diabetes or the slimming power of cabbage soup. As Fischer says, “Don’t treat it like an essay question.” A short answer, “I’m afraid I can’t eat that because of my diet,” will suffice.

Finally, once in a while a dieter should eat dessert. At a dinner party, a guest should not decline a homemade mocha-walnut torte that the host has slaved over, for example. Yes, a host will understand if the dieter has just had triple bypass surgery or is suffering from gestational diabetes. Otherwise, etiquette—not to mention joie de vivre—should trump health concerns. As Guiliano says, “If you accept an invitation, you should eat (you don’t need to finish) what is offered, or stay home.” It’s fine to ask for “just a sliver.” If the person is really worried about calorie counts, he should just have a small salad for lunch.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.