Growing up, no one needed to explain to me what I already seemed to understand: Grandma cooked big meals (especially over the holidays) to show that she loved us, and we ate as much as we could to show her we loved her.
That dynamic worked for me a kid because the food was delicious and I didn’t care about things like portion sizing, calorie counting, bad cholesterol, etc. At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of the complex dynamics involved in eating food and showing affection—which also involves aspects of power, tradition, expectations, guilt, body rights, etc., as other FIFI bloggers have described.
And, as Tracy recently reminded us, how food is offered and received can create much stress in social situations. In turn, these dilemmas focus our attention away from being merry and grateful for eating together in the first place. This is especially true if we are able to feast with loved ones while the pandemic continues.
Soon I am hosting our family’s upcoming holiday meal. While others may be planning how to respond to offerings of food, I am thinking about how I can create a dinner in which everyone feels attended to but not unduly pressured. Here is what I am thinking:
Share the menu in advance, and ask for dish suggestions.
It’s no secret I am planning a menu in advance, so why not share it to let people know what’s for dinner? I’m not doing exotic food theatrics like a on-fire baked Alaska, so I will leave the surprises to the wrapped presents under the tree. I will try to seek favourite dish requests–and put extras on the side–to ensure everyone gets something that accommodates their dietary needs.
Make the traditionals
In one of my favourite Christmas movies, The Ref (1994), Caroline experiments with an off-beat Christmas dinner menu, serving (to her family’s horror and disgust) “roast suckling pig, fresh baked Kringlors in a honey-pecan dipping sauce, seven-day old lutefisk, and lamb gookins.”
While I might enjoy preparing elaborate dishes with strange ingredients, I know my family mostly likes to eat the basics: roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Unless I plan on making guests uncomfortable (and eating 16 portions of 8-day old lutefisk afterwards), it’s more realistic to give them what I know they will enjoy.
Plan an outdoor stretch break
Not everyone likes to feel trapped in a place where they can only eat and drink, and I can’t see my family getting into a lively game of charades, so I will remind everyone to bring their warmies for a relaxed winter wonderland walk outside at some point. I will make available extra scarfs, and maybe some travel tea, so this activity will be inviting and comfortable.
Ask once, judge not
I will only ask folks if they want more food ONE TIME. I will not repeat my Grandma’s loving mantra, “Eat eat eat.” I will not take offence to food that is not touched or finished. I will remind myself that people choose what, how, and how much to eat for their own reasons that have nothing to do with my cooking.
I admit this one will be tough for me, but I will remember that paying less attention to other’s plates means I can focus on conversation and fun. (And if folks really don’t like the food, then they should be offering to host dinner next year).
My own habit is to overeat so food “doesn’t go to waste,” even if I don’t really want more. But I can avoid waste-guilt all around by making takeaway containers readily available, so folks can eat more when they want. (If I get my act together in time, I can get neat lidded dishes from a second-hand store.)
So, this for this holiday dinner–instead of focusing all of my energy on the food prep and on the eating habits of others–I plan on giving people information, choices, and a little optional exercise to let them know I love them. If they show up and seem to be having a good time, then I know that they love me.
This post is dedicated to my late grandmother, Margaret Stanski, who was a loving person and a wonderful cook.