For Thanksgiving dinner, what side dish would you prefer to accompany your turkey — a serving of well-marinated conflict over how much or how little you eat, or some nice, fresh criticism of your cooking skills?
As families gather around the country this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, many of them are bracing for the intense emotions of the holiday meal. The combination of food and family often brings out longstanding tensions, criticism and battles for control. Simple issues like cooking with butter or asking for seconds are fraught with family conflict and commentary.
“If we had an audiotape of a lot of families talking together, you would hear so much chatter about what other people are eating, who gained weight, who lost weight, who’s eating like a bird, who’s having seconds,” notes Cynthia M. Bulik, director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Dr. Bulik told the story of a patient whose mother scolded her for not eating her homemade cookies. “You don’t like my cookies?” she asked. As a result, the daughter relented and took a cookie. But when she then reached for a second, her mother scolded her again. “Do you really think you need another one?” she asked her.
In another family, a mother-in-law agreed to show up for Thanksgiving only if she could be assured none of the foods would be prepared with butter. “I’m not doing butter right now,” she said. “If you do butter, I’m not coming.”
Many people have an unhealthy preoccupation with body image or have undiagnosed eating problems that they may then try to impose on others, said Dr. Kathryn Zerbe, professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University and a longtime expert on eating disorders.
A Long Island woman, who like others interviewed for this column didn’t want to be named, said she and her family traveled 12 hours by train for a summer vacation gathering with her husband’s family. When her husband asked for seconds, the sister-in-law said there wasn’t any more food.
“There was all this food around, but she had cut us off,” the woman said. “We were just really shocked we were being told you can’t eat any more after coming all this way. We found out later she really controlled food in the household.”
The woman said that in her own family, she faced a different problem: the pressure to eat more. During holiday meals, her son, who has never been a big eater, was constantly pestered about not eating enough. “There was a lot of pressure on him when he would visit my family,” she said. “To try to get him to eat, my mother would say this terrible thing to him. She’d say: ‘You know you want to be a winner. You want to be a winner.’ ”
A Boston physician said that in her household, holiday meals would inevitably lead to a food fight. Her father, a headache sufferer, had quit eating chocolate years earlier and became obsessed with stopping others from eating it, blaming chocolate for causing colds and other ills.
“Both of my grandmothers liked to cook chocolate cakes,” she said. “He would always get angry whenever they would offer him some, and he would not infrequently cause a scene. He would fly into a rage if he thought we had some chocolate.”
People who are overweight are particularly vulnerable to family criticism at holiday time. One person told the story of a mother-in-law who would prepare a huge holiday spread and then berate her overweight daughter for eating it.
“Holiday time is an extraordinarily difficult time for anybody with any kind of food issue,” Dr. Zerbe said. “There are complex family relationships around eating.”
If you know you have a family member with a tendency to criticize what others eat or don’t eat, it might help to speak up about it and set some rules before the meal starts, Dr. Zerbe advised. Make a good-natured announcement that comments about how much or how little someone is eating are off limits, she said.
“Be prepared that the person won’t stop talking about it,” Dr. Zerbe said. “They can’t; it’s a form of control. But you have to battle that intrusiveness by putting up stronger family boundaries. Intervene and intervene again.”
Betsy, a high school teacher in Boston, said she had longstanding issues with her mother-in-law, some of which began after she underwent a Caesarean section. After the delivery, her mother-in-law, a slim woman, brought her only light lunches of lettuce salad, even though she was famished after nursing her baby. “Because of the incision, I couldn’t go down the stairs to the kitchen,” she said. “I called my husband at work, weeping, and asked him to come home and make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
Betsy said her cousin also complained of holiday meal tension with her own family, so the two devised a strategy to help each other cope. Each made bingo cards, but instead of numbers, the squares were filled in with some of the negative phrases they expected to hear during the meal, like “That outfit is interesting” or “Your children won’t sit still.” As comments were made at the separate family celebrations, each woman would mark her card.
“Whoever fills up a bingo row first,” Betsy said, “sneaks off to call the other and say, ‘Bingo!’ ”