"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
June 25, 2015
Nothing to Eat at My In-Laws' House
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

This summer, we are going to visit my in-laws. There is never anything to eat at their house. Well, except for macaroni salad that has been sitting out too long. I want to be a good houseguest, but it gets harder the hungrier I get.

Answer:

I think everyone has at least one relative whose definition of “food” does not match his own. Who among us has not watched in dismay as a well-intentioned host has rendered inedible a perfectly good dish of vegetables by adding some unnatural ingredient? Like Miracle Whip.

However, when you eat at another family’s home, you must remember that they are serving you either (1) the same food they normally eat or (2) food they think is better than what they normally eat. In other words, they like the food they are serving you, even if you think it is too gristly, salty, spicy, dry, mysterious, mayonnaise-y or soggy.

Also, it is surely inaccurate to say there is “never anything to eat” in their house. Your in-laws must eat something at home. If they didn’t, they would have to eat out every day. And if they were accustomed to eating out every day, they would probably continue to do so during your visit, thus providing you with a literal menu from which to satisfy your hunger.

This acknowledgment — that there is, in fact, food in your in-laws’ house and that your in-laws like the food — is important to answering your question. Saying that your in-laws have no food in the house makes them sound stingy or ungracious, and implies that they ought to do something about your problem.

But saying instead that you don’t like the food they serve puts the burden to solve the problem where it belongs: on you.

The obvious solution is to eat without complaint whatever is set before you, whether or not you like it. But if you cannot manage that — and I don’t blame you if you can’t — I have seven suggestions.

One, no matter what you do with regards to food at your in-laws’ home, you should put their feelings first. You must imagine how you would feel if you were they, and if your child’s spouse were doing what you are doing.

And don’t claim that, “Well, I wouldn’t mind. I understand that not everybody likes Miracle Whip.” That’s a cop-out. Instead, put yourself in their shoes. Be tactful, gracious and considerate.

Two, if you don’t want to eat something, say, “No, thank you,” and say it as if your refusal were of no consequence and no interest to anybody. As you know, it is rude for anyone to notice or comment on what another person does or does not eat. (Excepting parents who are monitoring their minor children, and even that requires tact and thoughtfulness.)

You can assume that your in-laws know this rule. So when they offer you the warm-from-sitting-out-all-day macaroni salad, lightly say, “No, thank you,” and return to the dinner conversation, thereby pretending that everyone is ignoring your eating habits. Which they probably are.

If, however, it turns out that your in-laws do not know this rule and do make a comment about what you are not eating, look mildly surprised and say that you are fine. Then return to the conversation. Do not call attention to the fact that they were rude.

Three, if anyone asks your opinion, give it. If your mother-in-law says, “Shelly, do you like your corn with or without syrup,” you can respond, “Without, please.” If your father-in-law says, “Should we stay in or go out to eat,” say, “Let’s go out. What a great idea.”

If you are asked whether you prefer Restaurant A or Restaurant B, give your opinion. Don’t dig a hole by explaining your opinion. Just say what you prefer and hope to get your way some of the time.

You might also gently communicate to your in-laws that there are certain foods you do not eat. You would not attempt this if you were attending a single event, like a house party or dinner; you would just say “No, thank you,” and leave it at that. But in a family, it is reasonable for you to know about and accommodate each other’s food quirks.

You have to be judicious, of course; you can’t claim to hate everything. But if there is a particular food that revolts you, your spouse might tactfully raise your problem with his parents. His explanation should be all about you and nothing about his parents, the way they eat or the way they prepare food.

“Mom, I love Oyster Heaven, but Shelly doesn’t eat any seafood.... No, not even shrimp.... Nope, not even with cocktail sauce.... It makes her queasy.... Yes, it was hard in Korea. She ate a lot of plain rice.... Oh, no, you don’t need to plan new meals. We’ll just grill a chicken breast for her instead of the salmon, and maybe we can keep some chowder separate, without the clams.”

Four, offer to help in the kitchen. Not everyone welcomes help from guests, but you can always ask. Then, if your offer is accepted, you might be able to cook the food the way you like it. Or, you might be able to put some food on a separate plate (or in your mouth) before it is attacked by a rogue ingredient, with the excuse that your stomach is feeling a little unsettled and could use some “plain” food.

Note that your in-laws will be more willing to let you help them cook if you already have a good relationship.

A similar strategy is to offer in advance to provide some of the meals during your visit. You can offer to cook or to treat them to a meal out. In many families, your offer will be met with a sincere protestation that you are the guests, the children, just starting out, etc. You should just as sincerely protest that they are the hosts, the parents, the long-time providers, and so on, that you want to show your appreciation.

Five, don’t let your opinion of the food infect your children. If your children don’t object to eating chipped beef, don’t show by your face that you think it’s disgusting. Just let them eat it.

You should also teach your children what to do if they don’t want to eat what is offered. Have them practice saying, “No, thank you, Grandma. But I would like some rice,” and teach them not to complain, wrinkle their noses, sneer or say, “This smells funny,” and, “I don’t like that.” If you can teach your children to eat what is served to them without complaint, that’s even better.

Six, go shopping. On the excuse that you need to purchase a toiletry or pharmaceutical, go to the grocery store. While you are there, buy some food that you like to eat. Be sure to also purchase something you know your in-laws enjoy, something you think they would like to try, or something you noticed they are out of. But don’t get too much — this is not a full shopping trip and you don’t want to imply that they are inadequate hosts.

Seven, eat out on the sly. Go for a drive. Grab a taco. Go to the store. Grab a sandwich. Go to the library. Grab a shake. Go see the sights. Grab a pizza. Eat while you are out and, of course, dispose of all evidence. You might also discover a passion for food trucks, tiny sandwich shops or farmers' markets, which you are powerless to deny while visiting your in-laws' charming community.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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