It's Not Just Politics. Food Can Stir Holiday Conflict, Too

Nov 20, 2017
Originally published on November 20, 2017 8:14 am

If you're gluten-free, you may turn up your nose at Aunt Betsey's macaroni and cheese. And what if you've got a vegan teenager in the family who'd like the Thanksgiving feast to be turkey-free?

A poll from the University of Michigan finds that for families with a picky eater or someone on a special diet, holiday meals can be tricky.

"About half of the families in the poll said that conflicts about food at holiday gatherings were a challenge for them ," says Sarah Clark, the co-director of the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health. And 55 percent of families said the time and cost of preparing special foods was part of the challenge.

"So that's a substantial number of families having an emotional conflict this time of year," Clark says.

Clark and her colleagues surveyed a national sample of parents about their experiences with teenagers and special diets. They found that about 1 in 6 families had a teen who has tried a gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, and/or paleo diet. Parents polled said their teens had several motivations, other than health-related reasons, for trying special diets. For instance, many said having a friend on the diet was a motivator, while others pointed to environmental concerns as a rationale.

And, of course, lots of adults experiment with special diets, too. A Nielsen survey from 2016 found about two-thirds of those surveyed said they follow a diet that limits or prohibits consumption of some foods or ingredients.

In an era when what we eat can be considered a political or ethical statement, and when experimentation with special diets is on the rise, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that food can be a source of family squabbles.

But Clark says, instead of letting food spats cause hurt feelings, it's best to try to diffuse tensions before the holiday begins.

"If you're the host, there are a couple ways to be supportive and accommodating," Clark says.

One strategy is to ask family members who are on restrictive diets to make their own dish to share. Or, tweak a recipe so everyone can eat it. (Maybe Aunt Betsey can use gluten-free pasta.) For the vegetarian who doesn't want turkey, meat-free alternatives are not limited to Tofurkey.

All of this may seem obvious. But from personal experience, I notice that we do tend to dig in with our loved ones and create conflict over little things. "We all may be served by lightening up on this one," Clark says.

When it comes to teenagers, rather than being annoyed, try to see their special diet preferences as a sign of growing up. "For teens, food can represent their emerging independent identity," Clark says. So, it may be best to back off and let them express themselves.

At the same time, ask teens to show respect to the people who've contributed to the meal.

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All right. You know it's coming, the dinner table awkwardness.


Yeah, that moment when somebody makes a remark about politics and you realize their views are not the same as yours about who should govern the country or something else divisive, like religion.

MARTIN: Right. These things tend to come up at holiday gatherings. Thanksgiving is upon us. And as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, food itself can also be a source of tension.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: It used to be that most people ate what was served to them without too much fuss.


DANA MILLICAN: (As Dana) If you have any questions about the menu, please let me know.

CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: (As Nance) I guess I do have a question about the chicken...

AUBREY: This scene from "Portlandia" is supposed to be funny. But doesn't it feel a little familiar?


MILLICAN: (As Dana) The chicken is a heritage breed that's been fed a diet of sheep's milk, soy and hazelnuts.

FRED ARMISEN: (As Peter) Hazelnuts, these are local?

AUBREY: At a time when what we eat can be considered a political or philosophical act and experimentation with diets - everything from gluten-free to vegan to paleo - is on the rise, more people are choosier about what they put in their mouths.

SARAH CLARK: Whether it is preference or people adhering to a special diet, it certainly does seem to be more common today.

AUBREY: That's Sarah Clark of the University of Michigan. She wondered how this influences family dynamics. So she surveyed a bunch of parents with teenagers. And she found lots of families, about 1 in 5, have someone on a special diet. And it turns out, this can be a recipe for whipping up stress.

CLARK: And about half of our families said that conflicts about food at holiday and family gatherings was a challenge for their family.

AUBREY: For instance, what do you do when a teenager who is vegan would like a turkey-free Thanksgiving?

CLARK: Or teen on a gluten-free diet says no to Aunt Betsy's special macaroni and cheese that she makes every year and is her shining contribution to the family dinner.

AUBREY: Instead of letting this cause hurt feelings or embarrassment, Clark says defuse the tension before the holiday.

CLARK: If you're the host, there are a couple of ways that you can really be supportive and accommodating.

AUBREY: To the teenager who doesn't want a turkey, strike a compromise. They don't get to veto the traditional bird. But by all means, invite them to bring a vegetarian alternative - same for the glutinous mac and cheese. Now, this may seem obvious, but from personal experience, we do tend to dig in with our loved ones and create conflict over little things.

CLARK: You know, we all might be better served by lightening up on this one.

AUBREY: Rather than being annoyed with a picky teenager, see it as a sign of growing up.

CLARK: For teenagers, food can represent their emerging independent identity.

AUBREY: So let them be who they want to be. And everyone in the family could try to be a little more flexible. The important thing is just being together. Right?

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.