How to Gracefully Refuse

Author: Matt K Training | | Categories: Behavior modification , Nutrition/Diet

Blog by Matt K Training

Here’s the scenario, you are gathering with friends/family for a meal. Though you haven’t told anyone yet, there are some foods you are purposely avoiding. Many of these foods are some you’ve taken in the past but no longer need. Perhaps, in a previous celebration, your very identity was linked to these foods, or your social relationships have revolved around them. However, now, these foods aren’t serving you or your goals any longer (they probably never did). The expectations are that you will indulge in them, as, it seems, is everyone else. Folks you know, friends, family, and/or co-workers are in attendance and (probably) looking at you, as the plate is passed over. At this point you have three choices: 1. Just take some and stomach it, 2. Use a delay tactic (bathroom, fake heart attack, etc), or 3. Refuse (gracefully!).

This is a familiar place for many of us, especially when we are in the midst of a new journey to improve our health in some way. Maybe you have turned the corner and are now a re-born endurance athlete training for an upcoming event, a body builder getting ready for a competition, or perhaps you’ve improved your health by losing a significant amount of weight. These can be lonely journeys. Not all of your relatives and acquaintances are fully aware, or even understand the steps you have taken to make such a transition. Hence, they won’t fully grasp why you’re not shoveling in a piece of Grandma’s pie (it’s a tradition!) or imbibing like its 2020 (don’t we all deserve a break?). Making this awkward moment, with the food/drink tray in front of you, even more so. In this post, I will share some ideas and practices you can do to stay on track in these situations, as well as some actual things you can say, to refuse gracefully, when the moment arrives.

Reviewing the options

Now, let’s get back to the scenario.

Choosing option 1. Acquiescing, which is what you’ve done in the past, always generates feelings of resentment, guilt, and disappointment. These are feelings that bubble up when you are using others’ perceived desires as an excuse not to treat yourself well. Often, it’s the first step in a slippery, winding, downward slide, back to where you started. You’re done with this, option 1 is out.

Choosing option 2. The extreme delay tactic doesn’t serve you. You’re not faking a heart attack. Next..

Now for option 3, refuse in such a way that no one is put off, and the room doesn’t go silent. Gracefully refuse. This can be very difficult, as silly as it seems. We fear rejection, we fear being ostracized, we fear missing out (FOMO), we are a people pleaser and fear causing conflict, hence the default for many of us is to say yes.

How does one gracefully refuse?

Practice! When under duress, we tend to revert to old habits. You want to program yourself so that you are habitually saying NO, rather than YES. Rehearse what you will say when the moment comes! Take 10 minutes each morning and practice in a mirror, role-play with your roommate/spouse, ask your Trainer (really, just like here). If no one is around, get on the phone or do it virtually. Will you be attending the gathering with someone? Ask that person for the role-play, it’ll serve as double duty, as you’ll have some social support too.

Revisit your plan – Have you taken time to visualize your outcome? Remind yourself why you want to eat this way, what will it do for you? How does it fit into your overall vision of your ideal life. This can help bolster your courage to say no.

This article provides some additional strategies to help prepare, read it before you go.

What to say, specifically

The best responses are direct, vague, and honest.
“No thank you”
“None for me, thanks”
“I’ll pass, thank you”
These simple phrases will give you the best mileage. They send unconscious messages to the uncharted depths of your brain that your health, your goals, that YOU are important. You are worth prioritizing. It can be a subtle way of reinforcing behaviors that keep you on the path to your goals.

What to do about pushback

You may feel compelled to defend your simple, clear, direct statements. Again, its best if you’ve rehearsed but even if you didn’t, here are some things you can do to soften the blow, yet make it clear you are done with the exchange:

Operate on a “need to know” basis- Stay vague, no need to give specific details. For instance, “I am eating low carb diet because I just learned I’m prediabetic, like my parents, and I don’t want to get diabetes” is too much. While details may throw them off, it can also alienate them, as if they can’t handle a “no”. Instead, maybe toss them a bone, “I’m not hungry for that right now, thanks”, or “Really, thank you but I’ve had plenty for now, I’d rather _____(mingle, walk off my dinner, hang out with so and so, sit here and digest/converse/reminisce)”. Then move on.

Be honest No need to make up anything. If we do, then again, we are sending unconscious daggers into the heart of our own desires and goals. The result, we won’t feel satisfied later. We’ll be left with a feeling of unfulfillment, and likely have more difficulty hanging tough with future push back. Do you like coffee? Try this: “Just coffee for me right now, thanks, I’m still working on dinner“. Would the food being offered be fine another time? As mentioned before, no need to completely restrict foods you like. There is a time and place for each, and maybe yours isn’t now, if that’s the case, try “I ate too much for dinner, can I take some to go?”.

Release the guilt- Focus on how you will feel sticking to your plan, not how others will feel because you didn’t want any special treats, alcohol, or desserts. You have nothing to feel bad about. You are not obligated to play a supporting role in someone else’s movie, you are the star of your own.

Confront your own preconceptions- You may also find that people don’t notice or care as much as you think. It’s likely a number of folks feel the same as you and are happy to follow suit. You have hidden supporters, give them a chance to reveal themselves!


Of course, during these times, it may be a small gathering, it may be at a restaurant where people are socially distanced, OR, you may be at home and a friend/neighbor is delivering some holiday treats to your doorstep. You can adapt these practices, ideas, and actions to any of these scenarios as well. The key steps are to prepare and practice in advance. When the moment arrives, be direct, vague, and honest. Politely repeat, maybe throw a bone if you get push back. It’s the best way to continue moving forward.

Please let me know if these are helpful, better yet, feel free to chime in below with any phrases you’ve used effectively (and felt good after)!

Thanks and best holidays and a great 2021 to all.


Ready to make a change in your diet/eating habits? Better yet, ready to improve your life? Check out my remote, holistic, Nutrition Coaching program!

Published by mattktraining

I am currently the Owner of my soloprenuerial company Matt K Training. Through my fitness and nutrition programs I help adults develop skills and practices that help them eat, move, and recover well. Over the past 20 years, in various roles such as a Personal trainer, Exercise Physiologist, Clinical Researcher, and Health Coach I have helped hundreds of adults reach their health and physical performance goals. When not working, I enjoy active pursuits such as playing baseball, hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing. I also enjoy indoor activities such as playing strategy board games, reading and discussing science fiction literature, dabbling with my guitar, finding creative ways to eat oatmeal, and being a good dad.