Fussy About Food: When nothing appeals to you

by epi on February 20, 2012

Q: My husband and I were invited to dinner at our daughter’s in-laws last Christmas Eve. My husband is a very fussy eater, and unfortunately there wasn’t anything there that he liked. He joined us at the table, but didn’t eat. Apparently everyone discussed his behavior after the holidays and said he was extremely rude. They felt he should have stayed in the living room saying he wasn’t hungry.

It was a very informal dinner, where everyone served themselves from the counter. Would it have been better if he stayed in the other room by himself while we ate? I found out about this yesterday, and it is really bothering me.

A: No, he shouldn’t have been expected to sit by himself. However, you might have consulted with your daughter-in-law beforehand to explain that your husband is a fussy eater and offered to bring something he would eat and could also be shared with the other guests. Just as it was impolite for your son and daughter-in-law to expect your husband to sit in another room, it was just as impolite for your husband to not even make an attempt to eat something.

There is no manners rule in the world that says you HAVE to eat something that makes you gag. However, it is polite to at least try something. Who knows -  maybe the chef has found a way to make that particular food delicious. That’s what the “No Thank You” portion is all about. You put just a taste of the item that is not so appealing on your plate rather than saying “No thank you.” Whether it’s a food you’ve never tried or it’s a food you haven’t liked in the past, this gives you the option to try it and at the same time shows respect for the person who has taken time to prepare it. It’s much better than just saying, “No, thank you,” unless, of course, you have a food allergy – then you don’t even want to take that taste and a simple verbal “no, thank you” is just perfect.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Winifred Rosenburg February 20, 2012 at 10:29 am

I disagree about telling the daughter-in-law and bringing their own food. I would be very hurt to plan an elaborate feast and have someone say “I probably won’t like anything you make so I’m just going to bring my own food.”

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Elizabeth February 20, 2012 at 11:17 am

Ugh, this is why parents do a real disservice to their children when they don’t encourage they to expand their palate and only ever feed them bland pasta, chicken nuggets and fries. They grow up to be this guy, who can never enjoy any new food and can only eat the same 6 things over and over again. It’s lose-lose for everyone.

I agree with the original EPI advice. It would be one thing if this were a dinner party with new friends, but this is a holiday with family. I think traditional holidays bring out funny things in people around food – we’ve grown up eating certain things and feel a real sense of attachment to them. There is a real devastation in not having the kind of stuffing on Thanksgiving that you’ve grown up with, for instance. Surely the daughter-in-law’s husband (the OP’s son, I assume) is very familiar with his father’s eating habits and could have easily told the DIL to include a dish that the father could have eaten. Or, the OP (instead of bringing up the husband’s fussiness) could have easily said, “DIL, In our family, it’s just not xmas unless we have our traditional pastitsio/stuffing/borscht, so we would love to bring a dish to pass.” EPI isn’t suggesting that they bring a whole alternate meal, but merely one thing that everyone can share.

Lastly, what seems to be sticking in the OP’s craw isn’t necessarily what happened, but that it’s become the subject of family gossip – that people are still talking about it well after the holidays. This IS quite rude, and it is only natural that she’s upset by it.

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Country Girl February 20, 2012 at 2:25 pm

I definitely agree about parents encouraging children at a young age to try new things. And also teaching them that eating a little of what you can is better than refusing to eat at all.

While I can’t imagine things would have been any better if husband sat in the living room alone, sitting at the table refusing to eat anything must have made the dinner completely awkward for other guests and was clearly insulting to the host who prepared the meal. It (publicly) said “Nothing you prepared looks appetizing enough to me to even try.”

Not liking a food is very different than one which makes you gag. I find it completely doubtful that at a Christmas spread, there was absolutely not a thing that he could endure. It sounds to me like he was just pouting. If I was the host of this dinner, I would be tempted to prove a point by going the extra mile to order him his own small pizza or make him a peanut butter and jelly to eat while the rest of us enjoyed an elegant meal. No one goes hungry in my house. And if you choose to act like a child, you shall be treated like one.

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Hope February 20, 2012 at 2:39 pm

While I agree it is good to have children try different things (and that is what I do with my children) I truly believe that pickiness is something you are born with. I am a picky eater and believe me, as much as anyone might think it is rude to the host, I would argue that it is more stressful for the guest, to have to worry that there is nothing they will able to even try without gagging. I have been in this position more than once but thankfully there were rolls or crackers or something. Rather than not eat, I would probably take a little of several things, push it around on my plate and try to discreetly discard rather than foregoing it altogether. I might agree that it would have been nice to try and bring a dish, but truly, I really believe that being a picky eater is NOT due to exposure only to certain foods (i.e. the classic chicken nuggets and fries) I have exposed my kids to a variety of foods (and withheld cookies, cake, candy, etc except for birthdays and VERY special occasions) in an effort to keep them from ending up a picky eater but the more I’ve talked to other parents, I’m afraid it’s just a part of who we are sometimes. And as far as there not being ANYTHING, it could be he has a common item he can’t stand that was in everything. For me, mayonnaise and onions are foods I cannot eat in any form and those things are in a LOT of dishes.

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Elizabeth February 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Now that you mention it, I had a boyfriend that had a similar aversion to onions, and it was really difficult for him too.

On the other hand, I knew this guy who was THE pickiest eater – nothing but meat, bread and cheese. Two years teaching English in Japan cured him.

Back to the topic at hand: it sounds as though you’ve learned how to manage in social situations without calling undue attention. I would still maintain that when you’re around family, people should be more accommodating and understanding for heaven’s sake. (How could his own kid not be aware of his preferences and make sure that they were accommodated?)

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Country Girl February 23, 2012 at 3:31 pm

I know the way the post is worded is a little confusing, but it appears this is not technically the husband’s family. These hosts seem to be the parents of his daughter’s husband.

My own father could be considered a picky eater. He grew up on a farm and had a bad experience that gives him an aversion to anything creamy; like milk, cream, and mayo. (And Hope as you mentioned, you can just figure how many dishes these are in!) But I would never find it appropriate to forewarn my fiance’s parents that they should make special dishes to accommodate him. During holidays at my house, I do take out a portion of mashed potatoes for him before adding the sour cream, but he is a grown man and knows how to eat around or take small portions of the things he can’t stomach when dining at someone else’s house.

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Winifred Rosenburg February 20, 2012 at 11:22 pm

My sister was a very picky eater growing up. However, my mother refused to make a separate meal for her, and my sister got tired of preparing her own dinner so she gradually grew out of it. Now she’ll eat anything from spinach to snails.

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Just Laura February 20, 2012 at 11:30 pm

God bless escargot.

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Chris November 13, 2012 at 7:12 pm

I am a fussy eater and yet my parent tried everything to get me to expand my pallete! Also it was very rare that I would eat chicken nuggets, if we did it was usually because it was finger foods at a party or it was at motorway services on a journey. Also we never ate “bland pasta” as there was always a sauce etc to go with it and my parents seasoned the pasta, perhaps these are British traits and these do not occur in America, I couldn’t say as I have never visited.

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Kristina L February 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm

I am a picky eater, but my parents did try to get me to eat various things when I was a kid. I don’t mean to be this way, but some foods really do make me feel like I’m going to gag. Also, I’m mostly a vegetarian (meat is one of the foods that makes me feel sick if I bite a piece of fat or gristle).

My policy is to take a small helping of everything I think I can handle (no meat) and at least try a tiny taste of it and also try to make it look like I ate some instead of that I just took a small portion.

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Beth February 20, 2012 at 11:58 am

I looked online and it said to try and post my question in the most recent posting comments section for a quicker reply: “For the fastest answer to your question, consider asking it in the comments section of the most recent “Open Thread” on the Etiquette Daily blog. There is a good chance that a Post author, institute staff person, or community member might be able to provide useful guidance. ”
So! here is my question- if I had a baby shower for my first baby is it rude to have another baby shower or sprinkle for my second expected arrival? Please advise. Thanks!

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Just Laura February 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm

I’m sure you’re very excited for your impending arrival. :)
Typically, one is being rude to decide that one needs more free baby stuff, when the person has already been given free baby stuff. However, many people make an exception if the baby’s gender is different, or if the family is active-duty military (due to frequency of major moving, most baby things from First Baby are given away quickly).
If the above doesn’t apply to you, why not have a Welcome Baby tea or luncheon for relatives to see Baby upon his/her arrival? That way there’s no appearance of gift-grabbiness, and everyone can enjoy time with radiant new mother and Baby.

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Karen February 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Totally agree. My brother is active-duty military and though they don’t move terribly too often (thank goodness!), they thought with their second boy they were done. So when the third one came along they were (happily) surprised, but after having given away much of the gifts from the last shower, my sister-in-law decided to have a second one. If there is any grumbling, at least for my part, I can say it all goes away when you see the new baby in the stroller/high chair/carrier you gifted.

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Hope February 20, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Beth, I live in the South so maybe it’s different here but I have never known anyone that had a second baby (and beyond!) that didn’t have a baby shower. I realize that in the past this may not have been done, and I have never seen anyone throw themselves a baby shower but if a friend or family member offers to do a shower for you, by all means, don’t feel bad in the least!
Two women at my work had their FOURTH children in the past couple years and we gave them showers and were happy to do so. It is less about the “free baby stuff” as it is about getting together with friends and family to celebrate.

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Just Laura February 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm

If it’s less about free baby stuff, then why not a luncheon or tea? Why add the term “shower” to it, when we all know that “shower” means to shower with gifts? Of course the grandparents, aunts and uncles are going to give Baby all manner of presents anyway; placing this expectation on the friends, coworkers and acquaintances as well is really unfair.
I feel the same way about multiple bridal showers, and I too live in the South.

Here’s the Emily Post Institute’s answer on the topic:
It is all right to have a baby shower for a second or third baby, as long as the guest list is limited to close relatives and very close friends and/or guests who did not attend a shower for the first child.

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Nena R February 20, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Baby showers or sprinkles are intended to be gestures of support for a mother expecting a new arrival. If you can’t attend with grace and comfort, don’t go. Send a card. Err on the side of kindness.
One of our friends, D, is having a second child; her older son is 2, and they still have a lot of his things. The new baby is a girl but these folk are not picky about dressing girls in pink. So D’s sister invited me to a ‘sprinkle.’ The invitation made clear that D and her husband don’t need a lot of baby supplies, but would love a gathering. It also said that what they do need (they are teachers, and not wealthy) is help with diapers and meals, so anyone who really wants to give a gift could go that way.
On the other hand, my brother and his wife are expecting their fourth–a surprise baby coming 10 years after their youngest. They had long since given away all their baby goods. So their friends threw them a shower a few days ago, with emphasis on re-gifting used baby supplies. In fact, my sister-in-law got back some of the things she had passed on to friends in need!

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Karen February 23, 2012 at 11:14 pm

I’m not comfortable being gifted big baby items like strollers, car seats, high chairs, etc (and even some small items) because I’d rather investigate and budget for those things myself. I know I am very particular about my purchases, but I’m also aware that I have an involved mother and sister-in-law. I know some people simply wouldn’t feel comfortable coming to a shower/sprinkle without bringing gifts so what I’ve decided to do is throw a Build-A-Library shower instead, where everyone gifts their favorite childhood book. I feel this is a fair compromise, my friends & family get to celebrate the imminent arrival of my child and I’m happy with the gifts I use for my baby, because really, who doesn’t want more baby books?

Can I use this theme again for a second and third baby? Is there a polite way of saying that gifting is optional?

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Just Laura February 24, 2012 at 12:15 am

Normally I’m really uncomfortable with multiple showers (it signals “I want more free stuff!”), but your Library idea sounds very nice. True, some may not like the fact you’re telling them what to buy, but reading is important, and you’re simply asking that they share their own favorite childhood book (a very modestly-priced item). Personally, I would attend this with a couple of books in hand. The down side is that you may find yourself with multiple copies of The Giving Tree or Charlotte’s Web. But there are many schools or other children who would appreciate them. :)

One isn’t supposed to really mention gifts in an invitation, but mentioning it word-of-mouth is fine. As for throwing one’s own showers, it would be akin to throwing yourself a birthday party and specifying the gifts everyone is supposed to bring for you.

Nena R February 20, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Shame on the rest of the family for making a fuss! In this gentleman’s case it was simple food aversions, but you never know. A party guest may be on a restrictive diet, or have attended another party already, or simply not be feeling well. Some adults are too old to have been diagnosed with sensory or social disorders that weren’t recognized when they were children–food aversions, especially around texture or scent, are common features of autism spectrum disorders. As long as a guest who chooses not to eat is making no rude comments (such as ‘I don’t like any of this’) and not exposing a personal or medical issue, the right path for everyone else is to mind their own business and let the dinner conversation proceed.

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Bunnyface February 20, 2012 at 6:48 pm

I would like to know how the fussy husband feels about this. If he doesn’t want to eat what’s offered, that’s his decision, but it should be HIS issue. If he is concerned about going to someone’s house and not finding anything he likes to eat, HE should be the one to call and ask if he can bring a dish (out of tradition, or however he wants to explain it).

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Jerry February 20, 2012 at 8:32 pm

This reminded me of one of Aesops’s fables: the Fox and the Stork.

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Mary February 23, 2012 at 1:47 pm

It makes me sad that family is being so judgemental here. This is the daughter-in-law and son right? Or maybe this is not the son’s father. I don’t know but I know in my family we are a bit more understanding that some family members, my own son being one, are very fussy eaters. Generally the host prepares at least 1 dish to appeal to picky eaters (i.e. mini pizzas at Christmas dinner for my son and some of the other kids). Did the daughter-in-law not know of her father-in-laws food issues? Could she not have at least 1 item that FIL would eat? Maybe I am missing the mark entirely but I think some accomodations could’ve been made. And maybe family could be a little more understanding.

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Country Girl February 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm

It says in the original post it was the couple’s “daughter’s in-laws” which would mean the man’s daughter’s husband’s parents. { whew!=) } So these are likely hosts who wouldn’t be as in tune to know that he is this finicky.

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Melissa March 16, 2012 at 10:53 pm

I think that offering to bring a dish to share, so long as it’s not an entree, it completely acceptable and I don’t think the husband should have to apologize for coming off as rude. There is no reason he shouldn’t be allowed to join in conversation with those who were eating at the table, either. I would think that the daughter-in-law would know by now that her father-in-law is a picky eater and not take his aversion personally.

As a picky eater I, too, find myself in this situation often. While I wish I could muster the courage to try a new food, it is much more than just an unwillingness to do so. It is a huge mental hurdle that at 24 years old I still struggle to jump over at parties, restaurants, and other social settings. I sympathize with him and wish that others would understand that by refusing a new and unfamiliar food, picky eaters are trying to avoid the bigger faux pas of making up excuses (like stating they ate before they arrived) and therefore offending the host(ess) so that they don’t feel ill when they have to sample something.

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Heather June 7, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Some people use food as power. That’s one of main reasons that children can be such picky eaters. They are trying to control their outside world in an environment where they have few choices. I suspect that this may be the reason that the hosts were so offended. Your husband was being passive aggressive.

If your husband is suck a picky eater, then why accept the invitation to come over for dinner? Why not stop by after people have eaten and enjoy dessert and good company? Explain to the hosts ahead of time that husband is not feeling well or is not hungry. Ask if you can bring something to the event.

There are LOTS of solutions to this problem that don’t offend the host.

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