Dear Dr. Donna,

My mother loves cooking. She lives alone so she will cook a big batch of something and keep a little for herself and bring the rest to our house for our family to eat. Some of it is great, but many times we just don’t like what she cooks. I feel like a jerk even saying that, but I’m distressed by the waste it causes. But I also can’t tell her we don’t like what she made because I don’t want to hurt her feelings and I know she loves cooking and sharing food. How do I handle this gracefully?

Thanks for your advice,
Ungrateful Jerk

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Dr. Donna Says . . .

Dear Ungrateful J,

As comparatively wealthy Westerners, most of us enjoy the luxury of choosing among a large variety of culinary options on a daily basis. We take for granted that we can, on a whim, select and prepare the dishes that best reflect our individual taste preferences. In short, we are, as the Brits say, “spoiled for choice.”  And so, naturally, we become picky.

In the context of all this abundance, food and eating rituals become associated with more than just nutrition, so much so that we have often been accused of “living to eat” rather than “eating to live.” In a macro sense, food takes on cultural importance. On the micro level, it can engender emotional and psychological significance. In families, food and the traditions that surround it, can take on special meaning, providing an opportunity for sharing and bonding. Food, or perhaps more precisely, its preparation, can reflect the love and nurturing we feel for one another.

But what about when we disagree about the details of these potential bonding experiences—such as the menu? When we want to encourage change but don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings in the process, we need to find ways to engage on common ground.

I appreciate your desire to curb food waste and I suspect your mother would too. Clearly she wants to feel useful and included. Find opportunities to involve her by asking for her advice and help, in ways that work for you. Does she have old family recipes to share? Can she offer suggestions about creative ways to use leftovers or tricks to disguise those healthy vegetables in ways that will be appealing to the vegetable phobics in the family?

You might mention how fussy the kids have gotten about food. Maybe you were too as a child (?) and this can spark some humorous and nostalgic conversation. Ask for her help in preparing specific dishes that the kids will happily eat.

Are the kids interested in learning cooking skills? If so, help arrange some quality time with Grandma preparing meals. Usually kids will be (brutally) honest about their likes and dislikes and their feedback can be easier to take without offense or hurt feelings. This could be win-win. Grandma spends time with the kids and they come away with a greater appreciation of the hard work involved in meal preparation and the challenge of keeping everyone happy.

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Someone Once Said . . .

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
—Virginia Woolf

“I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.”
—Erma Bombeck

“Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy. It’s not about nutrients and calories. It’s about sharing. It’s about honesty. It’s about identity.”
—Louise Fresco

“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (“Let them eat cake”)
—Attributed to Marie Antoinette, upon learning that the peasants had no bread

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Recommended Reading

For more info on the topic of the emotional impact of food take a look at these titles (synopses from Amazon.com and Buzz Feed Books):

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Earthy, magical, and utterly charming, this tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico became a best-selling phenomenon with its winning blend of poignant romance and bittersweet wit.

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl opens her memoir with a story about her mother, “The Queen of Mold,” that is instantly relatable to anyone who is intimidated by the kitchen.

The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten

As the food critic for Vogue, Jeffrey Steingarten has tackled everything haute cuisine, with hilarious results.

Born Round by Frank Bruni

The former restaurant critic of the New York Times takes us along on a journey through his eternal love-hate-love relationship with food.

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And On a Lighter Note . . .

Dear Dr. Donna,

Last Tuesday, I was trying to be a nice guy and surprise my wife with a special cup of her favorite flavored coffee—white chocolate caramel macchiato—just as she was waking up.

Now she expects a steaming cup of specialty java delivered to her in bed every morning!

What should I do?
Reluctant Barista

Dr. Donna Says . . .

Dear Barista,

Stock up on the caramel.

Someone Once Said . . .

“Coffee is a language in itself.”
—Jackie Chan

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Questions for Dr. Donna? Send them to

carriage.2

Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.