New Eating Habits Make For Awkward Family Interactions

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Dear Miriam,

Since the last time my family had a big, food-based gathering in early 2020, I’ve pretty dramatically changed my eating habits, becoming vegetarian and limiting certain kinds of processed foods. This change has been great for me, and I did my best to prepare my family before Thanksgiving, including offering to bring several dishes to dinner that suited my needs. Well, my relatives were … not kind. There were a lot of jokes about what was (and wasn’t) on my plate, and a few comments about how I thought I was better than everyone else at the meal. We left Thanksgiving with plans for some of these relatives to get together again for Hanukkah in just a couple of weeks, but I’m not sure I want to share another meal with this group, especially so soon after this one. Is there anything I can do to make this next experience less unpleasant than Thanksgiving?


Mocked at the Meal

Dear Mocked,

Talking about what others are eating, whether because of kashrut, allergies, dietary restrictions, or personal preferences, is never appropriate! Maybe your extended family forgot this universal truth after several holidays apart. How disappointing that your family fell back on tired tropes about other people’s eating habits rather than focusing on sheer gratitude about being able to be together.

After nearly three years without such a gathering, having two of them in such a short time span seems like a radical attempt to make up for lost time. But just because other people in your family are planning another dinner doesn’t mean you have to be there. You can simply say (or text or email), “It was so nice to see everyone over Thanksgiving, but I won’t be able to make it for Hanukkah. Enjoy!” 

Avoiding this get-together may be easier than trying to change their bad behavior or trying to guard yourself against more comments, but both of those are also options. To protect yourself, you’d need to go into the next gathering prepared to field or ignore the comments. You could lead with, “I’m not planning to comment on what you’re eating, and I’d appreciate the same courtesy.” If you (probably, inevitably) get some comments anyway, you can reiterate by saying, “I’m so glad to be with everyone, but I’d rather talk about school/work/movies/the weather than about my dietary choices.” Depending on timing and driving distances, you could also come for candle lighting and leave before dinner.

Don’t engage with the substance of the comments if they’re nothing but rude, but on the off-chance that someone has a genuine curiosity about what it’s been like to change your eating habits, you might consider this an opportunity to talk about something that’s obviously important to you. Maybe you have a younger cousin interested in vegetarianism who could use an ally, or an older aunt who’s interested in your thought process around food. Regardless of how a conversation starts – whether about food or not! – you always have the right to change the topic if you don’t like the direction things are going.

Changing other people’s behavior is the hardest option here, as in life in general. If you have a particular family member you are closest to in this group, reach out before Hanukkah and ask for some support. You can explain people were rude and intrusive at Thanksgiving and that you’d like help shutting down food-related comments at the meal. If you want to push harder, you could contact one or two of the greatest offenders and tell them that you’re hoping to avoid a repeat experience of hearing their comments about your eating.

Whatever you choose, remember your own agency and free will! If the next family experience is awful, you have every right to leave. If you like some of these people but not others, you could choose another event in the coming months to host on your own terms, with your own guest list and your own food. A huge confrontation will probably not lead to any desirable outcomes, but setting boundaries for how you want to be treated is always a good idea.

Good luck, and be well,