#1051: “The nightly dinner debate during family visits is making me very cranky indeed.”

Hi Captain,

I’m such a fan of your kind and logical advice! I’m hoping for scripts to deal with a nasty pattern that my family falls into at mealtimes when we’re visiting my parents and brothers- it’s kind of like the abilene paradox on steroids, but while hungry.

I tell spouse and my parents that I’m going to make salmon and a salad for dinner, and do they want any. Parents counter with a 40 minute discussion of whether I eat fish (only if not baked), whether chicken would be better (Mom is pescetarian) whether we can bake the salmon (yes, but then I won’t eat it). I circle back to what I started with, because I’m hungry and this is what I wanted for dinner.

Spouse then asks why I’m cranky and Dad finishes with the ‘whatever you want dear’.
I start prepping, then deal with another 2 attempts to bring chicken back into the mix and a quick derailment of maybe we should have gotten takeout.

At this point its been over an hr of discussion for dinner, and as far as I can tell, no one is happy with the choice of food. And this sort of nonsense happens every night we visit, and is only amplified when my brothers and their spouses are in the mix.

I’ve tried the escape with spouse for dinner, but then I have to deal with the parental ‘oh can we come with, since we’d like to have dinner with you, but we don’t like any of the restaurants you’d want, but we’ll suck it up since that’s what you want’

How on earth do I avoid this nonsense?



Ugh, I can see why this is maddening. There is a deeply-ingrained thing I’ll call a Family Social Fallacy here along the lines of “Families eat together, so, we have to eat all together as a family, and we all have to eat the same thing (even though we are grownups with widely varied dietary needs and tastes) for it to count.” This is why you’re having such a hard time even though your very sensible, logical strategies for handling your own dietary needs (making what you want and offering it to other people to eat if they want, eating out sometimes) aren’t quite working. It’s not just about baked fish vs. not-baked fish, it’s about FAAAAAAAAAAMILYYYYYYYY, the culture of your family, how your family sees itself (and food, and the ritual of eating together). It’s not easy to swim against the current in these situations.

I think that there are ways to make your strategies work a little better for you, but all of them involve a mind shift where you decide “Hey, it’s actually cool if we don’t eat together” or “Hey, it’s cool if you don’t 100% love what I’m cooking, I’m doing it anyway” and stick to your path even if other people express discontent. Once you decide that you’re allowed to do that even if people are momentarily upset by it, enforcing boundaries will be easier. The first time will be the hardest time, but if you can hold fast, people will generally adjust.

For example, what if you bought the groceries for what you want to eat and then went in the kitchen and made whatever you want to eat whenever you want to eat without discussing it at all? Make enough portions for you, spouse, and whoever is around to opt in if they want some. “I made a bunch of salmon & a salad, help yourself.” This creates a potential waste/leftovers issue, but a) you have a lot of experience with these folks and you know that they are likelier than not to opt in and b) if there are leftovers that solves tomorrow’s lunch or whatever. “I’m gonna eat last night’s salmon & salad, don’t worry about me!” The other adults in the house will not starve if you do this, takeout is a thing, grocery store rotisserie chickens are a thing, throwing some salmon in a skillet for yourself and giving some to your mom to bake or whatever is a thing.

Or, what if you say “I’m making myself some salmon & a salad for dinner, who wants some?” and, when the inevitable discussion begins, what if you interrupted people and maybe raised your voice a little bit: “I’m going to stop you right there. I am making salmon and a salad for dinner for myself. Do you want some, yes or no?” Give yourself permission to ignore anything they say that is not “Yes, count me in, thank you” or “No thanks, I’ll fend for myself tonight.” What about chicken? What about baked fish? What about a pony? Who fucking cares? No more hour(s) of debate. Give people 5 minutes maximum to opt in or out and then go make food for yourself and whoever was smart enough to opt in.

As for dining out (a smart strategy!), sometimes the answer is “We really have our heart set on [thing you don’t like], so we’re going to go ahead without you. We’ll come back and play some cards or watch a movie with you afterward, though!” or “We’re gonna grab dinner by ourselves, can we bring back some dessert though?” and if your parents have feelings about that they can sit with those feelings while they bake a chicken together.

And sometimes the answer is “Of course you can come. We’re going to [a place where you, the Letter Writer, know you can find something you can eat]” and if they complain you either decide to ride it out and roll your eyes at it because this is a quirk of your parents and you knew what it would be like, or you decide to say “You sound like me when I was five and didn’t want to eat my lima beans. Enough with the complaining already!!!

An overall script and strategy can involve you owning your dietary restrictions & needs, like, “Yep, I’m a picky eater, I need stuff to be a certain way and I need to eat at certain times or I get really cranky, so I’m going to go ahead and make sure I’m taken care of. I’m happy to share, but if you hate my cooking or need something different, I totally get it, I’ll just fend for myself and then get out of your way so you can make whatever you want!” 

Another possible strategy is to find some family togetherness rituals on these visits that aren’t based around eating. Pictionary? A movie marathon? A giant puzzle, or building the Millennium Falcon out of Lego? Going bowling? Dance Dance Revolution? There’s probably more than one way to disrupt the “Mealtimes are family togetherness time” thing that is lovely in theory but not working for you in practice. Find that way and spend some quality, not-cranky time with your folks.

Oh, so, by the way I’ve turned comments off on this post and on all other posts that were currently open for commenting. I’m giving myself a holiday break from moderating discussions this week. Thanks for reading!