Tips and Tricks for Dining: Confidence With Every Bite

A close-up of a hand holding a fork that is poking a piece of fish. There are three  pieces of tomato next to the fish and pasta on the far end of the plate.
Photo by Pixellaphoto. Licenced under CC0 1.0.

Like many people I enjoy attending social gatherings and activities. Going out for a nice dinner or attending a social event is fun and a great way to spend time with friends and meet new people. Relationships with others are very important to me. I definitely miss the social aspect of my life. I look forward to attending social functions again once it is safe to do so. I love to dress up and go out on the town. However, I am not a fan of spilling a drink on myself or wearing food in my lap. I have often thought of myself as clumsy. I have also wondered if my visual impairment has contributed to this. As I reflect on conversations I have had with many people in my life, many sighted people have shared with me that they have similar experiences when dining. I have come to recognize that my experience of spilling my drink or food is very much a part of being a human being. As my vision has declined, I have learned a few tricks that have made it easier for me when dining and attending social venues. I do my best to not over think what I am doing and just enjoy myself. I have adapted to new ways of doing things. In regards to my personal experience with vision loss, I have learned from others in the blind community and have taken independent living skills training, and I enjoy reading. Learning new skills is important for all people, and for a person who is blind it has been vital for me to become confident and independent. I would like to share a few tips I have found to be useful.

Whether I am dining out at a restaurant, attending a family BBQ, or attending a church potluck, I ask the server or others at the event for information regarding the menu and/or the layout of the food. I am not afraid to ask for assistance when needed, particularly when there is a buffet or potluck event. I always ask about ingredients in food, as I have food sensitivities. Food allergies are very common, and it is imperative to be aware of ingredients in food when ordering or dining out.

Accessibility in public settings and social venues is essential for people who have disabilities. For people who are blind, accessibility can enable individuals to navigate the venue independently and have the ability to access information and amenities available. Some restaurants have menus in large print and braille for people who have a visual impairment. I am currently learning braille offered through the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind, and I look forward to the day when I am a proficient braille reader and can read the menu myself rather than rely on the server or my partner to read the menu to me. Many restaurants have their menu displayed on their website. I have accessed menus this way on my iPhone, using VoiceOver. I love my java and am a regular Starbucks customer. I have also been able to order my coffee on the mobile app using VoiceOver.

Upon arrival to a restaurant or social event I check in with the hostess or others around me. I like to know where the restrooms are located. I have never mistakenly walked into a men’s restroom, neither do I want to. Many public places have signs with braille on restroom doors and braille numbers in elevators. I have had the pleasure of taking elevators designed with new accessible features, where the elevator announces which floor you are on. I wish that all elevators had this feature! I wouldn’t say that I have a phobia of elevators, but in the past I most certainly haven’t been a fan of them. In fact, if I have the option of taking the stairs or an elevator, I often choose to take the stairs! I have a very difficult time seeing the buttons in an elevator and numerous times have pressed the wrong button. Now that I have learned to read numbers in braille, I am becoming more comfortable and confident taking an elevator.

When meeting up with friends who are blind, I may choose to meet them outside or inside the establishment. Sometimes, I have had a friend walk right by me without me noticing them. I have picked up on cues from my guide dog and am aware of the sound of a white cane or a familiar voice. On other occasions I may meet friends inside a restaurant or pub. I let the server know I am meeting a friend or a group and ask them where my party is seated.

At times I find it challenging to keep food from falling off my plate. When I first heard of the clock method as a reference for my dinner plate, I considered this to be very practical. A good method for keeping track of food on the plate and being able to find drinking glasses and other dishes around the plate is to make use of the “clock reference system”. Knowing where food is located on the dinner plate at 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00 can help maintain a tidy and organized dining area (Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired, 2019, Locate Food Using the Clock Reference System, para. 1). I enjoy dining out, and yet I have often felt self-conscious when eating. Using the clock reference method when eating has saved me from knocking over a wine glass or hot cup of coffee. It has also helped me to keep my food on my plate, rather than it landing in my lap.

I have often relied on the small field of vision I have remaining, and this has not always worked in my favour. I have difficulty seeing depth, and when picking up a glass I have hit my tooth when taking a sip or have even gotten a straw up my nose! In outdoor settings I have also sat down on a wet seat because I did not feel the chair with my hand prior to sitting and have ended up with a very wet bum! I have come to learn that it is better for me to use my hand as a reference and gain important information through touch. When dining out, I ask the server where items such as sugar, creamer, salt, pepper, condiments and napkins are located on the table. Knowing where these items are is helpful in order to access them as needed. In some social settings, a server may not always be readily available to describe some of these items to a person who is blind. One skill I have acquired is being able to identify the difference between salt and pepper. Salt weighs more than pepper and sounds different when shaken. Salt shakers tend to have larger “perforations” than pepper shakers (Duffy, 2020, para. 1). Whether dining at home or out in public, I have developed the habit of shaking the salt or pepper into my hand, then I sprinkle it onto my food. My nose is fairly sensitive to the aroma of spices. I can easily smell pepper from a mile away!

For people who have some vision like myself, using a place mat with high contrast can be helpful when identifying dinnerware and food. For example, a dark place mat with a light coloured plate and cup. Serving darker foods on a light coloured plate also provides higher contrast for a person who has low vision (Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired, 2019, Eating Skills and Tips, para. 1).

Eating skills when dining out or at home have saved my garments from stains. Most importantly, I have gained confidence when dining. I am no longer worried about spills or making a mess. Many pieces in my wardrobe are a dark colour or shade. However, I have a few garments I wear on special occasions. I now feel comfortable dressing up, and I am no longer paranoid of ruining my formal attire. Using a fork and the tip of a knife to know where food is located on the dinner plate can be very helpful when eating. I often use my fork to push food towards the middle of my plate as food tends to move to the outer edge of my plate. According to the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired (2019), the tip of a knife can provide feedback of “the size of the meat or other food that requires cutting” (Eating Skills and Tips, para. 1). Food on a utensil can help to identify the size of food portion. Breads and other solid foods like mashed potatoes can act as a “barrier”, assisting with pushing food onto the fork. A knife can also be used as a barrier to push food onto one’s fork (Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired, 2019, Eating Skills and Tips, para. 1). The skill of pouring liquids and/or beverages can be tricky at times. I place the tip of my finger over the rim of the cup in order to identify when the cup is full.

Schroeder and Willoughby (1985) offer suggestions for people who are blind when hosting a dinner or social gathering. The authors describe how using a liquid indicator tool can be particularly useful when pouring hot drinks such as coffee or tea (Schroeder and Willoughby, 1985). To avoid spills or burns, Duffy (2020) recommends placing the glass or cup on a flat surface before pouring. The author further notes that it is best to pour slowly at first when pouring hot liquids before increasing the pouring speed (Duffy, 2020, Hints for Easier Eating and Pouring, Pouring Hot Liquids, para. 1). When dining out, I typically use my finger as a guide when pouring my beverage. When serving guests in my home, I use a liquid indicator when pouring drinks, as this prevents me from touching the rim of the cup. The liquid indicator tool is helpful, as it beeps to let me know when the liquid has filled the cup.

Having confidence and various skills in many aspects of life enhances a person’s independence. Dining and socializing can be enjoyed by everyone. I thoroughly enjoy going out, whether to a restaurant, coffee shop, wedding, concert, or family gathering. In the past I often worried about what others might think. I had low self-esteem, and I was self-conscious about spilling or making a mess when dining. I have grown as an individual in many ways since the diagnosis of my eye condition in 2007. I am confident, assertive, active and independent. I have learned valuable skills and how to problem solve. I cannot wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to be over. I miss gathering with family and friends and meeting new people. I look forward to the day when I can be a social butterfly once again.

Having confidence and various skills in life enhances a person’s independence. Learning the skills to navigate dining with confidence at home or at a restaurant, coffee shop, wedding, concert, or family gathering is just one of the many areas students will explore at the Bowen Island Recreation, Training and Meeting Centre. The skills they learn will help them combat low self-esteem, and feelings of self-consciousness about spilling or making a mess when dining, and let them dine with confidence. Help us make this valuable program a reality and invest in strengthening the social fabric of our community today!