Turn on the TV during a political campaign, and chances are you’ll hear the ‘kitchen table’ cliche used to describe shared family decisions. But what happens when that kitchen table becomes a battleground?
With vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diets becoming more popular, along with a greater focus on healthy eating, bonding over a meal isn’t always the recipe for success it once was. Still, conflicts over how we eat can usually be avoided by keeping the following principles in mind:
Don’t underestimate the power of food!
Food is an integral part of our cultures and communities. It even shapes our individual sense of identity. Our relationship to food begins from the very first day of our lives, and is intimately linked to our associations with childhood and family. In adulthood, food also serves as common ground to ease social interactions, from holiday meals with in-laws to business lunches with clients.
However, as with many deep-seated aspects of culture and identity, we tend to take this relationship for granted. Suddenly being forced to reflect on it may feel disruptive or threatening, which is why so many of us get defensive if someone close to us decides to eat differently.
The key is to be aware of this dynamic from both sides. If your mother-in-law tries to put her prized mousakka on your meat-free plate, you can show appreciation for the effort and significance that went into it, even if you have to graciously decline. Conversely, an equally important part of cultural etiquette is recognizing and respecting everyone’s right to determine what they will and won’t put into their body.
Despite the apparent challenges, there is no shortage of practical solutions for most ‘mixed-diet’ couples. Have a ready list of restaurants with menu options you can both enjoy. If necessary, keep separate utensils and cookware, or get a separate minifridge to store any ‘objectionable’ food items.
And remember, eating together doesn’t mean you both have to be eating the same thing. Plan and agree the week’s meals in advance, so there is no last-minute disputes over what is going to be cooked. Look up separate meals that can easily be prepared together, or find dishes that just need one or two ingredient substitutions. If you’re organized, you can enjoy dinner for two with little conflict and minimal extra work.
Respect others’ choices – and your own!
Food is a highly personal, and at times emotive subject. Someone may be vegetarian out of concern for animal rights or for health reasons, while others choose a gluten-free diet, even if they don’t have celiac disease. And in fact, even the meaning of a particular diet may vary from person to person. One recent study even found that over 60% of self-identified vegetarians regularly consume some form of meat, altering their personal definition to include categories such as birds or fish.
Whatever the reason, your dietary choices, and those of others – as long as they affect no-one else – should always be respected. Communicating openly and honestly about these personal motivations (without preaching!) may help you avoid unnecessary conflicts – should you choose to do so. Similarly, do not interrogate or criticize others’ choices. It’s a surefire path to alienation!
Examine the strength of your convictions
While much of this advice is geared towards coexisting with different diets, it also helps to be open to the possibility of one or both of your preferences changing over time. Studies show that many married couples show some degree of convergence, and this is more likely to go smoothly if it comes from mutual curiosity and genuine sympathy for each other’s choices rather than a deliberate conversion crusade. For what it’s worth, 84% of vegetarians in America go back to eating meat eventually, while omnivores may be surprised at the variety of meat substitutes that can taste just as good.
However, coexisting may be more difficult if the dietary motives are moral or religious. In this case, the partner with the stronger convictions needs to ask themselves if they are truly capable of respecting and emotionally connecting with someone who does not share them.
If the answer is uncertain, it is better that the conflict come to the surface earlier rather than later, as such differences often intensify once children come into the equation. But do bear in mind that for all the stereotypes of picky vegetarians, it is actually 30% of meat-eaters who would refuse to date a herbivore.
Ultimately, for most of us food is the fuel for life rather than its raison d’etre. And given that quality relationships are just as important to your health as what you eat, there is rarely a good reason to let a dietary dilemma derail your marriage.