Some of us are looking forward to burying our faces in Christmas dinner with friends and family in a brief 10 days. Hopefully, your dinner will be blessed with someone who has gifted culinary hands when it comes to baked macaroni and cheese—and I’m not talking about the disrespectful and disgusting remakes making the rounds on the internet lately.
Unfortunately, experience has taught me that with food comes people with opinions about what you are eating, potentially turning the dinner table into a WWE Verbal Smackdown when folks feel liberated enough to say something with their chest.
Personally, my group dining anxiety started back in 2011 during a break from culinary school. I’d cooked, and invited over some close friends for a gathering. As I was getting up for a second plate, it started:
“Toya, maybe you shouldn’t get seconds. I think you had enough … ”
Before I could respond, another friend chimed in—as he helped himself to another serving.
“Yeah, your portion sizes are massive and your plate is loaded with sodium … ”
Before I knew it, they were playing tag with my emotions, sharing unasked-for advice and correlating my health issues with my passion for mashed potatoes and chicken. I asked what kind of twisted form of group therapy they were trying to give me. But when I dared to challenge them, I was accused of being overly sensitive and argumentative, even as I suppressed tears in my own home.
Although I know most of the people in that room had their hearts in the right place—despite their deluded form of “tact”—all they taught me was how to eat like a malnourished bird during the holidays around friends and family members. It took years of changing my lifestyle habits, my relationship with food, and my amount of fucks and explanations to give for me to get comfortable eating around my loved ones.
In the spirit of giving, I want to share my tips on how to possibly survive a group dinner without spending your holidays in jail:
- You’re the vegan/vegetarian: Half your family will think that you’ve sacrificed your appetite to the leaf gods and, in turn, replaced it with a flavorless tofu soul. There’s shade being passed around the table next to the greens laced with smoked neck bones, because your relatives think you now thrive on bland salads. But unless your loved ones understand and respect how your lifestyle works, shut them up (or at least fill your stomach) with a dish of your own. Even if they don’t like it, you’re not starving as they pass the salt.
- Your weight loss or gain is the main course of discussion: It’s fascinating how exceptionally comfortable family can feel about pointing out what they view as “issues” in your personal life—in this case, your body. OK, you gained 20 pounds. Maybe you lost some weight. Who cares? (Clearly, they do.) Maybe you’ve already had enough experience with this to handle it tactfully, but if you find yourself feeling uncomfortable, shut it down. Stand firm and tell them that your body is not up for discussion or their concern. If possible, try to say this without hostility. After all, you kinda like these people. Well, at least I think you do.
- You’ve been gifted with the in-laws from hell: Fortunately, I love MOST of my family, but this is not the case for many others. Hopefully, your partner will stand his or her ground—and yours—to prevent crass insults from being thrown around; but if all else fails, create a contingency plan to enjoy your holidays. When I was having a crappy year, I briefly explained to a friend that I’d love to crash her space for a few hours. Thankfully, she didn’t mind. At the very least, recruit a lifeline to be on standby and listen to you vent.
Unfortunately, these few topics are just the tip of the iceberg lettuce—there are a multitude of issues that can arise, and some of them will not find a resolution. If all else fails, remove yourself from the situation. Put the oxygen mask on yourself, round up your children (if you have any) and jump off the airplane.
Emotional or physical abuse of any sort is not acceptable, even with family. Also bear in mind that most times, this is just someone else projecting his or her innermost insecurities onto you. Remind yourself that you are an incredible person in your own right; if there’s no truth—or kindness—in others’ statements, why allow their emptiness to consume you? It’s your holiday, too. Be happy.