To eat or not to eat (in therapy sessions). That is the question?

Is it okay for therapists to snack in session? 

Recently, Natalie (@kneadtotalk) on Twitter sparked a huge debate on whether it was okay to eat in a therapy session. The polls that were to come sparked controversy across multiple social media platforms with both sides of the coin very confident in their thoughts on the matter. 

So which side do you fall on? Is it okay to eat in session?

Our take, is well, it depends. After reading our explanation, you’re probably going to think, “well that’s common sense.” Putting topics like this into longer-form content than a tweet or a poll can hopefully help us see common ground.

Is it okay for a therapist to eat in session?

Yes, but.

But, it depends. A therapist’s calendar may be booked back to back with little time in between sessions. Imagine you’ve been in 3 straight sessions from 9am to Noon and you’re starving because it was a rough morning getting the kids ready for school and you didn’t have time to eat breakfast. Now - you’re facing another hour long session from noon to 1pm and are left with a daunting question. You packed a snack, should you eat it? Do you eat it during session?

Our Head of Mental Health Judy Fernandez said, "I don't personally eat in sessions, but I do understand how time isn't always on our side. I don't think having a couple of crackers should tarnish the therapist's professionalism. But, I wouldn't think it's appropriate to eat an entire meal in sessions."

I mean, it’s just crackers. It’s not like your whipping out silver wear, tucking a napkin into your shirt, and impressing your client with a well marinated steak. You’re having a cracker in between their sentences or in between yours. It doesn’t interrupt the session, slow it down, or delay the conversation.

There are a couple ways to approach this. The therapist could address it as soon as the session starts or simply start eating. A grumbling stomach might be awkward for both parties.

Claire Harward LMFTA said, "If the issue is that it could be distract from the session, then therapists aren't allowed to have their own thoughts because those can be just as distracting! Bottom line for me, if it's not harming me or my client, it's probably okay."

\What causes trouble is interrupting the session. A client has been looking forward to this session, their ONE hour with a therapist for the week or two weeks and now the therapist has introduced an unexpected variable into the session. In a timed session, especially cash pay, a delay or interruption is literally the client’s $$ at stake. Strictly speaking to the financial impact, a $200 per hour session delayed just six minutes is like a client saying goodbye to $20. Moving beyond the financial impact on the client-provider relationship, a therapist that’s eating has now added something they don’t usually do into the session. 

Many therapists who vote no on eating in session commented that it’s about the professionalism of the role and relationship and giving respect to the client’s time and the importance of the client feels like the focus is on them. Now, I’m not a therapist, but I have been a client who has been a client in session while my therapist has a snack. First, I want to say that if a few crackers could tarnish one’s professionalism, there may be more at hand than simply eating a small snack. Second, a therapist admitting their humanity to a client and desire for a snack in the middle of the day demonstrates to a client that hey, fundamentally the therapist sitting in front of them is just as human as them. When the therapeutic alliance between a client and provider is one of, if not the, most important factor in therapy, this recognition can go a long way in a client feeling comfortable with their therapist. As Nicole stated below, clients may come into sessions with preconceived limitations about what can happen in therapy - some of those beliefs may have even come from interactions with previous therapists. The opportunity for personal freedom and choice in session can help open up the environment.

In the end, the therapeutic alliance is what it comes down to when addressing should a therapist eat in session. Can both sides recognize the humanity in it? Can it be done without the client feeling less important or slighted? Therapists get people. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to read if your client is disapproving of you eating crackers. And, it’s not that hard to bring up that you really need a bite. Therapists are people too, and if a client isn’t willing to respect the humanity of their therapist, it is up to the therapist how they would like to proceed too.