“Generation Anxiety”: When my worry became a hidden dinner guest

Is menu anxiety real? Or had my generalized anxiety spilled into areas of my life without noticing?

By Maggie Hennessy


Published August 20, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Women looking at the menu in restaurant (Getty Images/Emmanuel Faure)
Women looking at the menu in restaurant (Getty Images/Emmanuel Faure)

One evening while on a press trip to Sicily with a half dozen fellow writers I'd just met, we sat down to dinner and I commenced my standard dining-out practice: painstakingly ruminating over what on earth I would order. Feeling squeezed because I hadn't gotten the chance to peruse the menu online ahead of time, I loudly joked that I would have to order last and asked everyone within earshot what they were having. 

Admittedly, though, it was hard to hear them over the chorus inside my head: I should probably get a vegetable for, like, health. Is this part of Sicily known for a certain dish? Does this restaurant specialize in something? Should I try their eggplant parm and compare it to the others? How many times per day is too many to eat pasta

At one point I lamented aloud, "How come it's so hard to decide what to get?" One of my companions looked at me and said, pointedly, "I think you just have anxiety." 

Naturally, I spent considerable time unpacking this with my therapist once I got back. Maybe this woman was right. That this lovable personality quirk of mine was in fact a big problem — a sign that my generalized anxiety was spilling into areas of my life without my noticing. After all, if a person I barely know pointed it out, it must be pretty obvious, right? All too soon thereafter, the results of a OnePoll survey landed in my inbox confirming that younger generations are more likely to have anxiety while ordering food at restaurants — 41% of Gen Z and Millennials (aged 18 to 43) to be exact, compared with just 15% of Gen X and Baby Boomers (44 to 77). Reasons range from taste and cost to the food's environmental impact and how long it takes to prepare it. Almost half of Millennials and Gen Z surveyed also say they prefer to order last, and a quarter like to peruse the menu before going out to eat. 

Are these tendencies merely the manifestations of our crippling generational anxiety? More importantly, isn't going out to eat supposed to be fun?

As humans, we're all wired to worry, even if our stressors have changed as life has modernized. Anxiety is what happens when that worry goes into overdrive. 

"We all have different stressors in our day to day lives, be it finances, relationships, the future in general," said Lauren Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming book "Generation Anxiety: A Millennial and Gen Z Guide to Staying Afloat in an Uncertain World.""One of the hallmarks of anxiety is that worry feels out of control. The brain ruminates. Anxiety is often a very physical experience, felt very deep in the body — aches, insomnia, stomach discomfort." 

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Seeing how she wrote the book on us, Dr. Cook wasn't surprised to learn that ordering a meal at a restaurant might breed disquiet among Generation Anxiety (which I have officially adopted as my self-identifier). Our social anxiety is much higher coming out of the pandemic, for one. Having a meal is an unavoidably in-person activity, which is something more of us feel anxious about, she said. Not to mention the steady flow of climate crisis headlines that has us questioning the planetary impact of every decision we make down to what's on our plates. But something else separates us from Gen X and Boomers that might be playing a role. 

"Food has been such a cultural experience for Millennials and Gen Z compared with older generations who don't have such an interest in restaurants and the food scene," Dr. Cook said. "With Millennials, it's a place to see and be seen; it has almost become a status symbol, like what do you order and what's your palate like? There's a sense of judgment to it sometimes. People can absolutely experience anxiety in that, a fear of not appearing cultured, being embarrassed to ask what crudité is, or not getting peer approval."  

With so many competing factors vying for our attention — not least of all weighing what we like versus what we think we're supposed to like (phew!) — indecision can overwhelm us, and leave us feeling buyer's remorse long after we've made up our minds. 

"We see that in dating," Dr. Cook said. "What if there's a better partner or option out there? With so many choices with something like food, it can be really hard for people."

Dr. Cook didn't sense anxiety so much in my tendency to take my time ordering my meal. "That's the part of the story where I hear, 'F*** it; I wanna take my time,'" she said. 

Like my own therapist pointed out, Dr. Cook noted that because I go out to eat for a living, it makes sense that I'd take more care in ordering and want to eat dishes representative of the restaurant and its location. 

"Instead, that person saying to you that you have anxiety is where I hear your own anxiety coming up," she said. "Your anxiety lies in the judgment of others."

"Judgments will always come with our decisions. Embrace what works for you."

Turns out, Millennials and Gen Z care a lot about what other people think. This causes us to deploy the common cognitive distortion of mind reading, in which we're convinced we know what someone else is thinking. In my case, hearing said thought expressed out loud by someone I don't know was powerful enough that it made me question my own experience and even the handle I have on my own mental health. 

This isn't helped by a culture that confidently serves up diagnoses of mental health disorders in 30-second segments on social media.

"There are all these TikTok clips telling us, these are symptoms of anxiety and ADHD, but what gets missed there is, how distressing is this?" Dr. Cook said. "How much is it negatively impacting your life and your ability to function?" 

If your anxiety is outside what you might deem the norm, makes you feel actively upset or unable to function or unsafe, "you're probably looking at anxiety order or depression," Dr. Cook said. "If not, it's a stressor; it's normal that we experience stress in our lives."

For me, the distress factor with ordering is negligible; I even like trotting it out as a self-deprecating form of comic relief. In this instance, my anxiety about being judged so happened to crop up while I was taking my sweet time deciding what to eat. Maybe I just need to take that "f*** it" energy to more realms of my life.  

"At the end of day, if other people want to judge you, that's on them," Dr. Cook said. "Judgments will always come with our decisions. Embrace what works for you."

"Generation Anxiety" is available for pre-order and will be released Sept. 19.

By Maggie Hennessy

Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based freelance food and drink journalist and the restaurant critic for Time Out Chicago. Her work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Taste, Eater and Food52.

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