Family Food Fights: Communication Skills May Save the Holiday

Posted on Tue, Jun 02, 2015 @ 06:35 AM


Today's guest post is contributed by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008), and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). A resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, Dr. Nemzoff also speaks and blogs about intergenerational relationships.


Q: All my children and grandchildren are gathering for a week at a beach house we rented in Florida. We all get along well, but I worry that differences in lifestyle will lead to tensions. One of my daughters eats only organic foods, another is a vegetarian and allows no meat to touch her table, and the third eats anything in sight. Obviously, each set of grandchildren is brought up with very different dietary practices. My six grandchildren range in age from 3 months old to seven years. My fantasy is that we will have wonderful meals together as I believe that sharing a meal is a great bonding experience. For me, cooking for my family is a way to show them my love. But I fear that our table will turn into a battlefield. We have not all been together in several years, so I have not had the opportunity to confront this situation before.

A: You will not be able to please everyone, so don’t try. Instead facilitate a conversation amongst your children, which will help you all figure out how to manage. Let all your children know that you desire to have some family time, and ask for their suggestions as to how this might be accomplished. Make it clear that you are trying to respect the needs of each of your daughters and their families. You are not trying to change anyone’s practices.

While all three families have agreed to spend their break with you despite their different culinary needs, the dining table is a most contentious place in your family and therefore not the best place for family bonding. You might need to forego your dream of meals together, but you enjoy your higher goal of unifying your family by bonding in other ways such as playing games, going for walks, or going on a trip to the beach.

In order to make sure this week is pleasant for all, you must raise your concerns in advance either with each child individually or with all of them by email or conference call/video chat. Ideally, two of your daughters might agree to be strictly vegetarian for the week so you could all sit down in the same room. However, this compromise may not be acceptable to your daughters and their husbands. You will not know unless you ask. The following are five essential questions that must be answered for this experiment to succeed:

  1. Can we come to a compromise or do we need to have family times that do not involve food?

  2. Who will buy the food and for whom?

  3. Is everyone willing to pitch in for the expense of organic foods, or are you willing to just buy organic for the whole family?

  4. Are the others willing to follow each other’s most restrictive rules? If not, how will the kitchen be managed?

  5. Are the carnivores willing to forego meat for a week?

  6. Are the vegetarians comfortable eating in the same space where others are eating meat?

You may find that your daughters come up with some innovative ideas just like they did when they were young. In any case, this is good practice for all of them and their families as they negotiate our complex society.

Sometimes we need to modify our dreams to achieve them.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal MA and is reprinted with permission.



Do You Take This In-Law . . . ? An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff

Gina Stepp interviews Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff about her latest book, Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.


Parent Talk - An Interview With Ruth Nemzoff

Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University. Vision interviewed her about her recent book covering parent and adult-child communication.


Tags: relationships, communication, extended family, holidays

Dreading Holiday Family Blowups? Take a Tip from a BFF

Posted on Thu, Dec 13, 2012 @ 08:59 AM

We each have a "belief system" that arises in part from what we've been taught combined with other aspects of our environment, including the influence of relationships we value. When we consider that everyone does not grow up with identical influences, even within a single extended family group, it's no surprise that we stumble over so many areas of potential conflict between these belief systems. Add in-laws from entirely different cultures to the mix and the potential for fireworks becomes almost limitless. In this guest post, Ruth Nemzoff offers a perspective that can help us focus on the strengths, rather than the weaknesses, of our family relationships.

Best Friends ForeverBest friends forever, as in, "This is Ellie Sachse, we've been friends forever." I've known her since I was 17 when  Barnard College randomly placed us together as freshman roommates. At first we merely lived well together. She was kind, considerate, and could sleep with the lights on. We shared the births of our children and the deaths of our parents. She helped me write my books. But it turns out forever was only 54 years.

This summer, it was a time to comfort. I gave the eulogy and talked of her accomplishments—first woman division chief at the World Bank, board member par excellence, loyal friend and photographer.  Last week, I traveled to her home for the first time since her death, and it was a time to enjoy some of the wonderful people she added to my life: her husband, her daughter, her grandson, and her son-in-law.

Her husband graciously handed me some of her photos. Their subject matter offered me a time to mourn. They depicted what we had shared: cups of coffee, bottles of wine, and exquisite scenery. The song in my head was "Seasons of Love" from RENT. In cups of coffee, in activities shared, in miles walked, how does one measure forever?

Best friends yes, but forever, no. So this holiday season, despite all the stress, enjoy your friends and family whatever they believe or don't believe or whatever lifestyles they practice. Let the petty annoyances roll off your back, because time is rolling on and forever is just a moment and the moment is now. It is your time to enjoy and to treasure.


Books by Dr. Nemzoff

Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)

Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)

"Do You Take This In-Law . . . ?" An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff 
In-Laws and Outliers
Parent Talk
If We Could Talk Like the Animals 

Tags: family relationships, in-laws, communication, holiday advice

Turn the Thanksgiving Food Fight Into a Gastronomic Tour

Posted on Mon, Nov 12, 2012 @ 12:59 PM

In my last post I talked about the latest book from Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). Today on Family Matters, just in time to help families plan a peaceful Thanksgiving, we are fortunate to have a guest post from Dr. Nemzoff herself. In this post, Nemzoff offers the same caliber of sound, practical advice that characterizes both her books:


Nemzoff RuthWhat is more American than apple pie? The Thanksgiving turkey, of course. Unless you are a vegan or a vegetarian. Then the turkey symbolizes our inhumane treatment of animals rather than the idyllic Norman Rockwell picture of family togetherness. Yet, for some family members a roasted parsnip and rutabaga just doesn't do it. Thus begin the Thanksgiving food fights.

Round one: A family member comes, doesn't eat, complains bitterly, and disparages the eating habits of the other guests.

Round two: The hostess is miffed. "I worked hard, and all I get are complaints."

Round three: Everybody's angry.

The all-American Thanksgiving—one of two holidays a year with no religious significance—is a holiday that should bring families together. But it can become instead a reason to instigate arguments as the universal appeal of coming together and eating is crushed by judgmental accusations and self-righteous attitudes. One family member won't eat at the table of omnivores and another demeans the ideology of Paleolithic eaters. Because the meal is the central altar on which we observe this holiday, the host is particularly sensitive to those who won't partake of the food and those who criticize the menu.

Many years ago, when I was a professor at Bentley University, I asked my students to write an essay about their Thanksgiving celebrations. I was looking for how family members interacted. Evidently, my instructions were unclear, because the papers I received described the meals in mouth-watering detail. Reading these papers, I discovered we are all putting our own stamps on Thanksgiving. The Vietnamese community added spring rolls; the Italians antipasto; the Jews knishes; and the Greeks grape leaves. Blending community customs with the traditional Thanksgiving fare has apparently been going on for years.

The lesson for today’s families with different dietary philosophy is tolerance. You can easily serve a platter of roast turnip and rutabaga, which contains no animal product or gluten in addition to the turkey. The host or hostess may need to make minor accommodations such as not putting the whole bird on the table, which looks particularly offensive to the animal-lover. Rather than digging in your heels to stick to an old tradition, blend the new with the old. Now that's as American as apple pie!

Those who do have special dietary needs might ask in advance if they could bring their own special dish or, if plane travel precludes that option, they could order from a local store or request time in the kitchen to make their specialty. The bonus is the host and new family member will spend time together and teach each other a thing or two.

If you're entering a new family, you can be sure the meal won’t be exactly like mommy used to make it. The stuffing won't be the same. The new family may use cranberry sauce from the can (a no-no in your family). You can choose to focus on the differences, or enjoy what you're served and treasure the new experience with your in-laws.

Maybe in your family, everybody pitches in to clear the table and do the dishes. Much joking and teasing and camaraderie accompanies these tasks. In other families, they may have hired help. In either case, both are demonstrating hospitality. If, at the end of the meal, everyone gets up to take their plates to the kitchen and you're used to being waited on hand and foot, don't pitch a fit about the extra work. Join in the fun because working together can be fun, and many hands make light work, as well as a much happier hostess.


Books by Dr. Nemzoff

Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)

Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)

Tags: family relationships, in-laws, communication, thanksgiving

Good In-law or Bad Outlaw: Which Are You?

Posted on Thu, Sep 06, 2012 @ 05:04 PM

ruth nemzoffIt’s just as well that a 2010 Federal court decision concluded you can’t sue someone for telling mother-in-law jokes. Otherwise, imagine the rush on the justice system: they are a staple of modern humor. Well, not only modern humor. In actual fact, mother-in-law jokes have been tossed around at least since Juvenal’s first-century work, Satire VI. “It is impossible,” he wrote back in the day, “to be happy while one’s mother-in-law is still alive.”

When you think about it though, it seems a bit unfair that mothers-in-law are the ones branded as the primary "outlaws" of the family. We all have a lot to learn about being good in-laws, whether we're a parent-in-law, sibling-in-law, or even an aunt-, uncle- or cousin-in-law. Fortunately Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family, the latest book by Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff,  explains how to navigate these unique relationships and smooth the way to making in-laws a gift rather than a curse.

Why are these relationships so challenging, in the first place?

Nemzoff points to a disconnect between reality and our expectations. When we choose to hitch our star to the wagon of our dreams, we aren't necessarily prepared for all the cargo in the back. In fact, sometimes it's hard to tell exactly how much cargo the wagon actually carries. How close is your new partner to his or her family members? How close will you be expected to be? Will the two of you interact mostly with his nuclear family, or will you be expected to spend significant time and effort on relationships with in-law aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents too? The answers to these questions will vary considerably depending on the situation, but the potential exists for unwelcome surprises—not only for the new spouse, but for the bonus relatives too.

"We become an in-law by a decision made by someone else," Nemzoff points out. "The younger generation makes the choice of partner, but they have no say in all the relatives who come along with their mate." Nor do the relatives. Suddenly there are all kinds of new relationships among people who are likely to come from very different backgrounds. "They have little idea which buttons they can push, what happens when they push one, and which buttons the new person will push in them," she explains. "They have not survived disagreements and arguments. In-laws do not share a common history. They are virtual strangers."

Obviously, this sets the stage for a whole slew of potential pitfalls. Fortunately, Nemzoff has done her research. Using interviews and focus groups, she has taken an audit of the myriad issues, disappointments and challenges that arise among in-laws and has offered viable strategies that are sure to counteract the familiar cliches that keep in-laws stuck in the mire of animosity. And she does not shy away from difficult topics, such as culture clashes, financial battles and issues that arise over disability or death.

Don't Roll Your Eyes follows very naturally on the heels of her first book, Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children. "In the almost 300 lectures I gave around the world after my first book came out," she explains, "I had many questions about adult children, but the one that was most common was the in-law question." As readers related their personal experiences it became clear there was a need to dig deeper into the issue, and Nemzoff has addressed the task with wisdom, humor, and cultural competence.

This is not the pat treatment most often encountered on the topic of in-law relationships. Rather, it's a truly useful presentation of real perspectives and specific issues. And while it may not turn every outlaw into a beloved in-law, her advice offers the best way forward for those who are ready to make real changes.


For more about her book, see our interview with Ruth Nemzoff, "Do You Take This In-Law . . . ?" and the accompanying comparative review titled "In-Laws and Outliers."

Tags: family relationships, communication, in-law relationships

Situation Normal: Addressing Family Unity

Posted on Wed, Apr 16, 2008 @ 03:48 PM
Why do some high-risk relationships endure while others fail?

Let's say a problem comes up in your romantic relationship. Do you talk about it or not? Noting that there can be differences in conversational styles between men and women, it must surely be no surprise that communication snafus are a major cause of relationship problems.

But how major a cause? And how serious might the resulting tension be?

According to a recent study by Cornell University's Maureen R. Waller, a couple's ability to communicate is a key factor that marks the difference between an enduring, stable union and a rocky, short-lived one.

The study, published in the April 2008 issue of the interdisciplinary journal Family Relations, was conducted among economically disadvantaged couples with children. Their relationship tensions were similar and numerous, and included concerns such as finances, housing, childcare issues and other personal problems ranging from negative personality traits to substance use and even criminal activity.

In identifying the differences between stable unions and unstable ones, Waller notes that "almost twice as many parents in unstable as stable unions talked about general tensions related to communicationa catchall term parents used to refer to problems such as being open, honest, understanding, and patient with each other."

Parents in stable unions had confidence in the future of their relationship, to some degree because of this ability to work through their problems together. Says Waller, "parents in stable unions often characterized their ability to communicate as one of the primary assets of their relationship." For example, one subject commented: "We're able to talk to each other. Sometimes we may get a little testy, but we can talk."

This trait seems pivotal to solving the other issues that were common to unstable couples. Many couples whose relationships later dissolved during this longitudinal study cited trust and fidelity issues, as well as extended family and social network tensionsissues which might have been resolved if communication lines in the relationship had been open.

But there were some other interesting traits noted in the stable couples who participated in the study. Not only did they communicate well, but they saw their tensions in a different light than did those whose unions later dissolved. In Waller's words, "parents in unstable relationships tended to frame the tensions they were experiencing as problematic and intractable, an interpretation expressed by at least one parent in four out of five of these unions."

In contrast, parents in stable unions believed their tensions could change. They saw them as temporary challenges that could be overcome together.

Is it a coincidence that couples with better communication skills took a more hopeful view of the challenges in their relationship?

It might be tempting sometimes to believe that ignoring an issue will help it go away. In reality, however, relationships of all kinds do require honest, effective and frequent communication to be successful. Soback to the opening question: Do you talk about it, or not?

It depends. Would you prefer a stable, healthy, growing relationship or a rocky one?

Tags: family relationships, communication, communication skills, high-risk couples, marriage and family, maureen waller, stable unions