So you’ve decided to eat healthy and lose that weight you’ve been carrying around. Or you’re trying your best to follow your doctor’s guidelines for managing your diabetes. Or you’ve come to a decision for your ethics and your health that you’re committed to being a vegetarian. Or vegan. Or you’ve discovered that you really do better without gluten.
You’re doing pretty good with it. But Christmas is looming. Here’s some tips for navigating the minefield that can be the dining room table.
1. Understand that food is loaded. And I’m not just talking about loaded baked potatoes. Food is loaded with meaning.
Every year, my mother spent days baking Christmas cookies. Many different kinds of Christmas cookies. Dozens upon dozens of Christmas cookies.
Our family is not that big.
But for my mother, baking Christmas cookies was an important part of Christmas. Just like it was important to have two meats and sixteen vegetables on the table for dinner. (Our family is not that big.) But for her it was an act of love to make sure every family member had a vegetable they loved, that we had everyone’s favorite dish.
That cake may be more than a cake. It may be a way the baker has of expressing love. It may be the passing along of a legacy of generations, remembering someone who has died with the food they used to make. (For example, whenever I make chocolate pie it’s not just chocolate pie. It’s my Aunt Janie’s chocolate pie.)
2. Honor the feeling. Even if you cannot or chose not to eat the slice of cake, you can honor the intention of the one who made it. Honor the work they’ve done. Honor the caring behind it. “Tell me how your mom used to make this…” “You’re so thoughtful to think about all of us…” For some, the acknowledgement they need is in your enjoyment of their food. But it can also help to have a verbal acknowledgement.
3. Talk about the food. this is true especially if you have a special diet. Family members may feel a little scared that first Christmas you’re a diabetic or have gone gluten-free. Talk with them about what it means. Give suggestion as to what you can eat or ways recipes can be modified. Offer to bring something, if possible.
4. Talk about food early. In the case of my mother, most of the Christmas casseroles were done and in the freezer not too long after Halloween. If the cooks in your family plan on a similar schedule, be proactive.
5. Be prepared to be a broken record (or stuck CD or frozen mp3.) Anticipate reactions. Will your uncle the hunter make fun of you for being vegetarian? Will your sister make comments about all of that gluten stuff just being a fad? Plan ahead of time how you’ll respond. Generally, the Christmas dinner table isn’t a good time for debates, so answers that de-escalate instead of answers that engage generally work better. “I know it must seem like a fad to you, but I’m willing to do anything that makes me feel this much better.” “I know it may seem silly, Uncle Jim. but you know me…” “It’s okay if our children don’t clean their plates.”
Be prepared to repeat these statements as many times as possible. If you choose not to engage in an argument or debate, they cannot make you.
6. When all else fails, have a back-up. We still laugh about the time that my sister-in-law’s father, not impressed with the healthy dessert she’d made for Thanksgiving, insisted on stopping at Shoney’s on the way home for fudge cake.