Passing around plates and keeping peace

Some pointers on avoiding verbal food fights among friends, family at holiday table

December 20, 2006|By Kathy Manweiler | Kathy Manweiler,McClatchy-Tribune

Food, friends and family. Putting them all together during the holidays can be a recipe for conflict.

Some people just can't resist voicing unwanted opinions and advice on loved ones' weight and eating habits. Others are subtle saboteurs who wave too many temptations under the noses of people who are trying not to gain extra pounds during this season.

It's a sticky situation for many who find themselves on the defensive about what is - or isn't - on their plates. And food fights can spoil what should be a happy occasion.

So for anybody who's ever wished he or she could bring Dear Abby to a holiday event, we're calling in some backup.

We gave family and nutrition specialists some scenarios that many people face this time of year and asked them to share some tips. In short, here's a little advice about food that you might actually want.

Your mother-in-law makes a signature dish that she's really proud of, and she expects everybody to eat it. You're not on a diet - you just hate that particular food. What should you do?

"Take a bite-size helping and pass it on," says Charlotte Shoup Olsen, an associate professor of family studies at Kansas State University. "Whether you consume that bite is up to you."

Heidi Wells knows what it's like to face foods with an ingredient that she doesn't care for. "It happens to me all the time with raisins," says Wells, a registered dietitian at Via Christi Regional Medical Center in Wichita, Kan.

What's her strategy?

"I at least try it or mix it with something else" to show courtesy to the person who made the dish.

You're on a low-carb diet, but people insist on putting rolls and pie on your plate. Plus, they tell you that low-carb diets aren't very healthful. How should you respond?

"Those are touchy things because everybody has their own opinions about what works," Wells says. "If you are gung-ho on the diet that you've chosen for yourself, then just say, `This is what works for me.' "

If people try to pile carbs on your plate, "you could smile and say, `No thank you,' " Shoup Olsen says. "Just avoid boring the other family members with your dieting saga. ... That can set up a person to sabotage."

You've lost some weight this year and now family members say they're worried you're getting too thin. "Here, have some more food," they say.

Sandy Procter, a registered dietitian with K-State Research and Extension, suggests just changing the subject by saying, "Thanks. I appreciate your interest in my health. And how about you? How have you been?"

While some people may have ulterior motives to shove food at you like that, there's often an innocent explanation, Wells says.

"It's just that shock factor," she says. "Somebody hasn't seen you for a year and you've lost 30 pounds and they can think, `Oh my gosh, she's withering away.' "

In that case, consider reassuring your relatives that you're at a healthy weight.

You've been on a diet, and now you're at the office holiday party. Your co-workers keep pressuring you to sample their favorite foods, but if you did that, you would wind up eating way too much. "You've done so well - one piece of pie won't kill you," they say. What should you do?

"You can say, `It does look great, and maybe I'll have room for it later,' " Wells says.

A family member keeps giving you unsolicited advice that you need to lose weight. At a holiday meal, he looks at your plate and says, "Are you sure you should be eating that? Do you really need that piece of pie?"

You could calmly say, "Hey, can we not talk about this right now?" and later pull the person aside discreetly and express how you feel about him talking about your eating, Wells says.

If he won't drop the subject when you ask, "Get yourself out of the situation," Wells says. Go sit at another table if possible.

On the flip side, if you're the one pushing a relative to lose weight, here's something to keep in mind: Eating disorders can begin because of negative comments like these from loved ones, Wells says.

You've decided not to drink alcohol during the holidays, but at a party, a friend insists you have to have some champagne for the toast. What should you do?

"Don't make a big deal about it," Shoup Olsen says. "Accept the glass, toast and leave it at that. You don't even need to take a sip."

In all of these scenarios, "trying to keep the peace is the important thing," Wells says. "The biggest key to holiday success is simply knowing what your limits are."

A calm tone of voice, some flexibility and a smile can go a long way toward defusing these conflicts, our experts agree. "Remember what is important if this is one of the few times that your family gets together during the year," Shoup Olsen says. "Treasure the time with each other rather than being obsessed with food choices."

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