Discover more from Burnt Toast by Virginia Sole-Smith
The Burnt Toast Guide to Eating With Other People
Holiday meals, family pressure, fat in public, and more.
ICYMI, BT Guides are a new recurring series where I dig into your most frequently asked questions. Here’s the first, on weight and health, the second, on talking to kids about anti-fat bias, the third, on diet culture in schools, and the fourth, on kids and sugar.
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Your Holiday Eating Survival Guide
I’m running this guide (an update/amalgamation of several previously published pieces) a week before American Thanksgiving for a reason: It’s Feast Season in many parts of the world, and that means it is also “eat with people you don’t normally eat with” season. Which can mean seeing people who haven’t seen you since your body changed, and might have an opinion about that. “For my extended family on my mother’s side, a standard greeting at holidays is literally, ‘How much do you weigh?’” noted one commenter in this Friday Thread.
Feast Season can also mean seeing people who don’t spend a lot of time around your kids, and will have opinions on how they still don’t eat green foods or don’t know how to use a knife and fork.
And Feast Season also means you or someone you know is working very hard to put on elaborate meals. And that person (again, it may be you! It has sometimes been me!) may experience how much everyone eats or doesn’t as a direct validation (or not) of their/our efforts. Also, sometimes one person can be all of these people! It’s a lot.
We are a culture that demonizes appetite and fatness, and yet centers every major celebration on food. We are wired to show love through food, but also taught to apologize for loving food. We tie our understanding of children’s behavior to how they behave around food, even though we model such strange behavior ourselves.
We are also a culture that sets impossibly high standards for the execution of these feasts, and yet makes the labor required invisible, or at best, a dumb meme. (Also this one, this one, and this one. Honestly, anyone still confused about why women are angry all the time can just Google “Thanksgiving mom memes.”) On Instagram, it’s not just the turkey glamor shot, but also the homemade pies, the layered tablescape, the children dressed in subdued but coordinating autumnal hues, #grateful. In real life, all too often, it is still women scraping plates in the kitchen while men talk politics or watch football.
But here’s the thing: You deserve to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal without judgment or acrimony. Your kids deserve the same. Your bodies do not need to be up for discussion, or subject to more the oblique and veiled references that many families trade in. It’s okay to say you aren’t available for that conversation. And it’s okay to make the labor visible and more equitable. Here’s how.
Judgment-Free Holiday Meals With Kids
For our kids, this begins with accepting that mashed potatoes can be dinner, as I wrote for the New York Times back in 2019, and say again every year. That column is geared towards parents of picky eaters, but I think it contains a lot of universal advice. Micromanaging your child’s plate in the middle of a big family feast is only going to make the day less fun for both of you. That’s true whether you’re paranoid that they aren’t eating enough vegetables, or that they are eating too much pie. (Also: There is no such thing as too much pie.)
A few years ago, one of my best mom friends texted that she was dismayed that her kids didn’t want to eat anything at their Friendsgiving celebration. She finally pulled out applesauce pouches and string cheese and felt like a failure. “Is this my embarrassment that my kids are so close-minded?” she wrote. “I’m just stunned at how particular they are. Like they taste the nuance in bread [and know if it’s not our usual bread].” Amy, of Yummy Toddler Food, was also on the chat and wrote back: “Can you hold your frustration about their particular food likes and dislikes, but distance it from being the thing that decides whether or not a meal was a success or that you were a successful parent in that experience?”
And this is maybe, the whole key. It is frustrating when kids don’t eat; when they don’t appreciate our effort; when they don’t seem to be developing the palates we expected them to have by certain ages. And we’re allowed to feel all of our feelings about that. But how much should that factor into how we or they experience a holiday? Does that mean we are not allowed to truly enjoy or “succeed” at Thanksgiving (or any other adult-oriented menu) until our kids can enjoy it with us? And, what if they never get there?
I’m reminded of how this mom had to stop framing her son’s pickiness as a problem to fix and it feels even more critical to make that shift around the holidays. I’ve interviewed adults who were labeled “problem eaters” as kids. And too many of them remember family holidays as days of failure.
Okay, but what if you’re chill about your kid only eating (so much) pie but other relatives might not be?
Make a call or send an email today to let them know that you’re aware of their concerns, but want to take that off the table at Thanksgiving. Here’s the magic phrase I learned when reporting this NYT piece from Jenny McGlothlin, a feeding therapist at the University of Texas Dallas Callier Center and co-author of two fantastic books on picky eating:
“We know that Johnny is a pretty cautious eater, and we’re trying a no-pressure approach that’s working very well for him, so this year at Thanksgiving, please follow my lead.”
Then if a comment inevitably pops out anyway, you can circle back: “Dad, please follow my lead on this.”
You should also push back, kindly, when other adults try to label your child’s eating style or appetite:
“The way your children eat does not define who they are,” said Crystal Karges, a registered dietitian nutritionist who focuses on mothers and families in San Diego. Instead, respond to their queries with a phrase like, “She’s doing quite well exploring food on her own terms.” You can also redirect the conversation away from eating with, “Oh, do you know what she’s really enjoying right now?” And then talk about any milestone or activity your child loves that has nothing to do with food, Karges suggested. “Many people gravitate towards food conversations because it’s easy small talk,” she said, “but you don’t have to let your child become their focus.”
And don’t be afraid to set similar boundaries around discussions of your child’s weight or growth trajectory. As I wrote in the conclusion to Fat Talk:
One gentle way in might be to mention, before a visit, that you’ve noticed your child becoming more body conscious recently, so [weight and diets] are topics you’re working hard to avoid, and you’d appreciate Grandma and Grandpa’s help. Then when a comment inevitably comes up, you can jump in and say: “This is what we talked about. We’re not doing [this] around the kids.” If you have a partner, co-parent, sibling, or friend who will be there, loop them in ahead of time so they can also help enforce the boundary and redirect the conversation. And when you do have to cut off a hurtful comment, stand in solidarity with your child: “We trust her to listen to her body.” “We trust his body to grow.” “We’re not worried about their eating/growth trajectory/jean size.”
PS. If the child at your holiday table that gets this kind of pressure isn’t yours, I also forever love Corinne’s response to these comments: “Wow, we’re really talking a lot about what this kid is eating.” Sometimes a (mostly) neutral observation is all it takes to help other people realize they’re over the line.
Fatphobia at the Holiday Table
It’s also valid to set this boundary if you don’t have kids, of course. If you’re fat, or your body has recently changed, “I’m trying to steer clear of diet talk right now because I haven’t found it helpful. I’d love your support on this.” I’d start by having this conversation with a family member who could be an ally to you. Can they help deflect or run interference if the comments start up on Thursday? Or if they won’t be there, can they be on text support standby in case you need to take a break and vent about the weird thing your grandma said?
Consider whether it’s worth talking to your “worst offender” relatives ahead of time as well. At the very least, you might plant a seed, or at least find they are less shocked when you remind them that this topic is off limits for you. Writer and fat activist Ragen Chastain has a fantastic workshop on dealing with fatphobia at the holidays and you might want to just go watch the video right now. She’s also covered how to respond to holiday fat shaming here and here.
And we should all remember Corinne’s Neutral Anthropologist approach here too: “Wow, it’s so interesting that you’re commenting on my body.”This also works if the person is commenting relentlessly on their own body or eating habits: “It’s so interesting you won’t let yourself eat chocolate.”
Making Holiday Labor Visible
But remember that so many of these relationships exist in a gray area. It’s the aunt who taught you to swear and to shop, but also lives on SlimFast. It’s the grandpa who put you through college but will also never pick up a dirty dish in his life. It’s the cousin who plays so well with your kids but also never shuts up about Paleo.
And it’s the mothers and grandmothers who have worked so hard to make this meal, and so many other meals. If you are trying to set a boundary around body and diet talk with the person who does most of the labor to make your holiday meal happen, make sure you are also taking time to appreciate their labor and contribute to it in whatever way you can. (You don’t have to be a great cook to load the dishwasher!) They have lived through decades of diet culture and they are now watching younger generations march towards fat acceptance and a freer relationship with food. Maybe, they are wondering why these options were never on the table for them.
I say that not to harm of anything your mom or grandma has said to you about your body. But if you’re going to show up to that relationship, it’s essential to find some degree of empathy for them. Because Millennials and Gen Xers , as I wrote here. And that’s part of why these conversations feel so impossible. We’re wrestling with our own biases and insecurities and our families are the people most likely to say the silent parts out loud. And sure, our mothers had Martha Stewart, but we have all of Instagram teaching us how to manufacture cozy season.
So, yes to setting the boundaries. But also yes to doing our own work. Yes to appreciating the roads we didn’t have to walk, or that are made even the tiniest bit smoother by those who went before. And yes to questioning perfectionism in all of its many forms: The body talk, sure, but also in the expectations we put on this holiday, and on each other.
This holiday season, don’t serve disordered eating.
How do you set diet/body talk boundaries with friends?
How do you handle diet talk?
“One thing that’s got me through the holidays these last few years is being upfront with my family – telling them I don’t want to hear their opinions about my body, my weight or my eating habits.”